The Buffalo Sabres have had a few players post strong returns to form this season. The most notable among them may be Kyle Okposo. The veteran has re-emerged after a tumultuous stretch in his career and personal life and now resembles the player of old that the Sabres signed in 2016.
This past Saturday night (April 16), Okposo scored his 20th goal of the season to help propel the Sabres to a 4-3 comeback victory over the Philadelphia Flyers in Buffalo. Not only was it a great birthday present for the man who turned 34 earlier in the day, but it also brought him to the 20-goal plateau for the fourth time in his career. It’s been a truly exceptional story for him, and in order to understand its significance, one must understand where he was a few years prior.
Okposo’s Tough Beginning in Buffalo
On July 1, 2016, the Sabres sent waves through the NHL by signing Okposo to a seven-year, $42 million deal. It was a big move for a team that, at the time, seemed ready to contend and adding a player of his caliber was going to propel them to the next level.
Though the Sabres stalled, Okposo delivered in his first season in Western New York. He led the team in scoring for much of the campaign and was named an NHL All-Star for the first time. Everything seemed to be going perfectly, until one fateful day in March 2017.
During a routine play in practice, Okposo sustained a head injury that was soon revealed to be a concussion. Though there initially wasn’t much cause for concern, it then took a serious turn. A medication prescribed for the injury caused an unexpected reaction that landed the winger in the Intensive Care Unit of Buffalo General Hospital and caused him to miss the remainder of the schedule (from “Kyle Okposo ‘will be ready’ for training camp after late-season medical scare, Botterill says”, The Buffalo News, 6/15/17). It was a bizarre scenario that, fortunately for him, appeared to be resolved quickly.
Okposo recovered and rejoined the Sabres for the 2017-18 season, but it was eventually revealed that the situation was darker than originally thought with far more happening beneath the surface. The head injury had a severe effect on his mental health and caused a long, heavy struggle with depression and mood swings. Thankfully, his doctors eventually found a way to help him and Okposo was able to get healthy again (From “Back from the abyss: Kyle Okposo opens up about the darkest days of his life”, The Athletic, 9/24/18). The Minnesota native now uses his story to help others and has become an outspoken advocate for mental health awareness.
Though his recovery was fantastic news, Okposo’s professional struggles unfortunately didn’t end there. He suffered two additional concussions in 2019 and admitted that he considered retiring as a result of it. His play began to decline sharply and by the time of the COVID-shortened 2021 season, fans were calling for a buyout. However, just when it seemed like his time in Buffalo could be over, Okposo found new life.
The Fountain of Youth in Buffalo?
Whether he’s discovered the benefits of cryotherapy or simply has been eating his vitamins, Okposo has looked like a new man this season, and his resurgence couldn’t have come at a better time for the Sabres.
His renewed vigor on the ice has been reminiscent of his glory days with the New York Islanders and it’s clear that he has rediscovered his offensive muse, passing with confidence and showcasing a deceptively powerful shot. It’s resulted in a fine bounce-back campaign, as his 43 points are currently good enough for fifth on the team. His tally on Saturday against the Flyers also propelled him to the 20-goal mark for the first time since the 2015-16 season. But even more so than his contributions on the ice, it’s Okposo’s leadership that has been the hallmark of his season.
In a season that saw captain Jack Eichel‘s departure, Okposo has emerged as his replacement, even if it doesn’t say so on his jersey. With the Sabres desperate to move on after Eichel’s acrimonious dispute with ownership over the handling of his neck injury, the team needed new players to step up in key roles in order to wipe the slate clean. No one has done that more than Okposo, affectionately dubbed “Dad”. At the beginning of this season, he pledged that the Sabres would commit to hustle and hard work, and though the team has struggled heavily at times this season, it’s evident that his words have rung true.
The Sabres (as they’ve been so many times in recent memory) are currently a team in transition and seem to be on the cusp of taking a step towards contention after a strong end to the season. Okposo’s leadership has been invaluable to the team’s progression and his influence on youngsters like Tage Thompson, Rasmus Dahlin and Dylan Cozens has been very evident. It’s unclear if head coach Don Granato will name a new captain next season, but Okposo is unquestionably a favorite if he does.
What’s Next For Dad?
It will be interesting to see what the future holds for Okposo. This coming season is the last of his contract and, though highly unlikely, there’s still a chance that the Sabres could elect to move him. After such a strong resurgence this season, his trade value will be higher than it’s been in years and general manager Kevyn Adams could see fit to send him to a contender if the return is good enough. Cutting his contract would free up even more salary space for Adams to work with, but with over $15 million at his disposal already, it isn’t likely he will make that decision to move him.
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It’s been a special season for Okposo and it would be tough for anybody to deny how well-deserved it is on his behalf. He refused to give up through the numerous obstacles he’s had to face over the past five years and is reaping the rewards of his perseverance. Whether the Sabres decide to retain him or move on remains to be seen, but it’s safe to assume that Sabres fans don’t want their “Dad” to go anywhere anytime soon.