By Bill Hoppe
For a few months, Kyle Okposo needed to get the heck away from hockey. Everything about the Buffalo Sabres’ nightmare 2020-21 season – the 18-game winless skid, coach Ralph Krueger’s dismissal, and his own struggles, to name just a few things – kept weighing on the veteran right winger.
So Okposo distanced himself from the sport he so dearly loves. “I just totally checked out from the game for a long time,” he said. “I watched the playoffs, but I just got away. I needed to recharge my batteries because I was just fried from the season.”
Okposo experienced near-constant turmoil over his first five seasons in Buffalo, playing for four coaches and three GMs. The Sabres haven’t made the playoffs since 2011, an NHL-record-tying streak of futility.
The 33-year-old Okposo, meanwhile, often struggled to live up to the seven-year, $42-million contract he signed as an unrestricted free agent in summer 2016. After earning a spot in the NHL All-Star Game in 2017, a string of scary concussions nearly derailed his career.
But Okposo evolved, embracing a checking role. In his early 30s, the three-time 20-goal scorer transformed himself into a different asset. Before the COVID-19 pandemic ended their 2019-20 season, the Sabres seemed to finally be inching forward under Krueger.
Then everything imploded last season. The Sabres endured a widespread outbreak of COVID-19, went 36 days between wins, finished dead last and started rebuilding again.
Okposo battled injuries and couldn’t get on track for months. When he found a groove after interim coach Don Granato replaced Krueger, an errant puck broke his cheekbone in April.
That’s when Okposo decided he needed a break from hockey. He says he didn’t skate for two months. He spent extra time with his family. Then he eased his way back on the ice before ramping up his training. “I felt really good right away, which is not normal for me,” Okposo said. “But I had been feeling really good at the end of the season, and I kept feeling good.”
This fall, Okposo returned to a dramatically different team.
Leading scorer Sam Reinhart, No. 1 goalie Linus Ullmark and veteran D-men Jake McCabe and Rasmus Ristolainen were either traded or left as free agents. Former franchise pillar Jack Eichel was out of the picture after a protracted clash with team brass over the best course of action for his ailing neck. (Eichel was eventually shipped to Vegas Nov. 4 for Alex Tuch, Peyton Krebs and draft picks.)
Many prognosticators picked the Sabres to again finish dead last. But Okposo saw the fresh environment as an opportunity. Over the final few weeks last season, some of the Sabres’ top youngsters seized starring roles under Granato, who was named permanent coach June 29.
GM Kevyn Adams complimented his young core over the summer by acquiring a slew of inexpensive, 20-something journeymen hungry for fresh opportunities. “Having youthful enthusiasm, it’s infectious, it’s contagious,” Okposo said.
Instead of plummeting to the bottom again, the Sabres roared out of the gate this season, becoming one of the NHL’s feel-good stories early on.
So far, Okposo looks rejuvenated. Granato named Okposo and Zemgus Girgensons, the team’s longest-tenured players, alternate captains. Okposo, an authentic voice, revels in being a leader and mentor. On the ice, he has been a strong two-way presence, consistently generating offense. “Players, as their career evolves, they have to keep reinventing themselves because they’re losing the athleticism they had when they were 21, 22, 24,” Granato said. “He’s in that elite category of players who keeps finding a way to reinvent his game.”
Having experienced so much losing, being a part of a Sabres’ revival would be special. “I want to be here for everything,” said Okposo, whose contract expires after next season. “I’ve been here for the bad, I want to be here for laying a foundation to get us into the next phase of where we’re going to be, which is a good team, and I know it. I don’t know when it’s going to be, but we’re going to do it the right way, and when I’m gone, I’m hoping that the guys in there will have learned something, learned how to prepare every day, and the culture won’t be something they ever have to talk about.”
Okposo, of course, never envisioned so much chaos would engulf his career. When he signed with the Sabres, he believed they were closer to contending for the Stanley Cup than his former team, the New York Islanders
“It’s been a ride, that’s for sure,” Okposo said. “If you had told me that I was to go through what I’ve been through in the last five-plus years since I signed here, I would’ve said you’re crazy. So, yeah, it’s been a lot. But that’s life, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. And I love where I’m at right now in my life and where this team is at and where this organization is going.”
This article originally appeared in The Hockey News' Goalie Issue.