The Buffalo Sabres have had a long, challenging season so far, and we’re still only 50 games into the season at the time of writing, so the hardship is far from over. They currently sit at seventh place in the Atlantic Division and 29th overall in the NHL standings, and have lost six straight games in regulation to bring their record in their past 10 games to 2-7-1. Despite bottoming out like most people had them doing this season, however, there are some bright spots and positive storylines this team has produced, and one of those is the resurgence of 33-year-old Kyle Okposo, a hard-working veteran who has been with this team through its’ darkest days. Here’s a look at his bounce-back season and what it could mean for his future with the Sabres and in the NHL.
Okposo Having A Bounce-Back Season
There are a number of Sabres players who have enjoyed individual success this season, either in the form of a breakout season or a bounce-back season. Tage Thompson, Jeff Skinner, and Rasmus Dahlin are some of the obvious choices, but Okposo has earned his recognition as having a truly productive, impressive season too – and it’s his first in a long time.
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In 48 games this season, Okposo has scored 13 goals, 17 assists, and 30 points, while managing a minus-10 plus-minus rating and averaging 16:49 time on ice (TOI). He’s been utilized in all situations, his strong play rewarding him with playing time on both the power play and on the penalty kill, where he’s contributed with nine power play points, including five goals, and has added one short-handed goal. His shooting percentage (S%) at the time of writing is 10.7, his highest since the 2016-17 season, his first with the Sabres.
Okposo currently ranks fourth on the Sabres in total points, and third among forwards. The only defenseman with more points is Dahlin, and the only forwards with more points are Thompson and Skinner. Second-year forward Dylan Cozens is three points back of Okposo with 27 points, and could very well surpass him sooner than later, but Okposo’s scoring pace to date has been a pleasant surprise to watch, and he’s not showing any signs of slowing down this season.
Sabres Seeing Okposo’s Best in Buffalo
Since being drafted in the first round at the 2006 NHL entry draft, Okposo has been a mainstay in an NHL lineup. He spent the first nine seasons of his career with the New York Islanders, playing on the wing of former Islanders captain John Tavares for most of those seasons. His best season saw him score 27 goals and 69 points. Since signing with the Sabres as a free agent in the summer of 2016, however, Okposo has been unable to come close to eclipsing those career high marks.
In his first two seasons with the Sabres, Okposo scored 45 points and 44 points, respectively, impressive marks considering the team had just begun its first rebuild of the decade and drafted former captain Jack Eichel just one season prior to Okposo’s arrival. Unfortunately, the Sabres teams of the late 2010s never amounted to anything, and Okposo’s production suffered greatly during that span. For a player who has been relatively good with 549 points in 883 NHL games, Sabres fans were disappointed in his performance, to say the least.
The Sabres finally seem to be seeing the best that Okposo has to offer, however. Not only has he had a personal resurgence in terms of offensive output, but he’s also truly stepped into his shoes as a veteran leader to his younger teammates, leading by example on and off the ice where and when it counts most. In a recent game against the Columbus Blue Jackets that the Sabres lost by a big margin, Okposo spoke about how they need to learn to close out games.
“This year we knew it was going to be up and down, but that’s one that’s not acceptable,” Okposo said on the 7-3 loss to the Blue Jackets. “It’s not like we didn’t work hard. We were playing hard. We just were mentally not where we need to be to play that game.” (From ‘Sabres unable to adjust during loss to Blue Jackets’ NHL.com, 2/20/2022)
Okposo Could Be Shopped at NHL Trade Deadline
Okposo is in the sixth year of the seven-year deal he signed way back in 2016, and has a cap hit of $6 million for this season and the next. With the reality of the Sabres’ situation and his impressive individual 2021-22 season so far, this begs the question: will general manager (GM) Kevyn Adams shop Okposo as trade bait to a Stanley Cup contender as we approach the NHL trade deadline? The answer: he most certainly could, and I believe he should.
If you were to tell me last season that the Sabres should try and trade Okposo, I would have responded with “To who?”. Okposo hasn’t scored 20+ points since the 2018-19 season, and had shown substantial decline previous to this season, in every consecutive season for a while. But in 2021-22, he has more than doubled his points-scoring pace from last season, and is performing as well as he has since 2017, making him a more attractive trade target for a team looking to fill a middle-six or bottom-six forward hole with a veteran leader who can score. He could be the perfect candidate.
The only caveat is that Okposo has a modified no-trade clause (M-NTC) for both this season and the next. It could be difficult to trade him to a team that’s not a contender, and who knows if he would even want to waive the clause to be moved. It’s very possible that if his name enters the trade conversation that Adams would have to get him to agree to a deal before he makes one. Whatever happens remains to be seen, but it will interesting to watch it play out.
Sabres head coach Don Granato praised Okposo’s leadership recently, saying “Okie’s probably the easiest visual to look and see, he knows how to play fatigued . . . He’s a very intelligent, experienced player. He knew when, efficiently [to say], ‘OK, I’m going to have a surge.’
” … That’s the difference. He knows how to pick the right spots even though he might not have his legs. That was where his experience shows.” With an endorsement like that, opposing GMs have got to be considering Okposo as a trade target for their teams to add that last piece before a Stanley Cup run.
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Brandon is a Buffalo Sabres Contributor for THW and Co-Host of THW’s ‘Sabres Scoop,’ who received his Master of Science in Sport Administration from Canisius College in Buffalo, NY, and founded his website, Seltytending, in 2017. He is an avid hockey writer and podcaster with prior work experience in the OJHL, NWHL, and NCAA. Twitter: @BSalts15