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Sabres laud Kyle Okposo’s resurgence, leadership as Buffalo’s captaincy decision looms


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Don Granato would not name names, but he wanted the story told.

The Buffalo Sabres coach had gotten on a roll about one of his favorite subjects: forward Kyle Okposo’s watchful presence.

Granato’s voice rose as he recalled disrespectful moments that flared against his team more than once. He spoke in plurals. Granato described the opponents only as “star players, elite, elite players in the NHL” who during games openly mocked Buffalo’s youngsters for being nobodies on a nothing club.

“Any time Kyle ever caught wind of that, he stepped in,” Granato said, “and you could see the look on the other player’s face, OK, we just crossed a line we shouldn’t be crossing.”

Listless for a decade, the Sabres finally are providing entertainment value, showing promise and exhibiting newfound pride. Within the revival, Okposo has been a revelation. He has recovered from a terrifying 2017 injury and crawled out of a nominal, fourth-line role to emerge as the Sabres’ conscience.

Okposo perhaps more than any other player, his coach and general manager acknowledge, has pulled the Sabres back to respectability. Granato said much of the team’s identity comes from Okposo’s example.

“I just put everything I have into being here, into trying to help the organization and the team,” Okposo said. “This was really the first year where I felt like it was going in the right direction.”

Would it be crossing a line to say Okposo will be Buffalo’s next captain?

Not based on the way his teammates insisted on naming his name at the end of the season.

“To a man,” Sabres GM Kevyn Adams said, “almost every player in the exit meetings found a way to make sure that I knew how much they respect Kyle Okposo. That’s pretty unique. It wasn’t like I was asking players, ‘Hey, tell me what you think about Kyle.’ They just said it to me.

“Everybody you talk to in the game of hockey, across the NHL, they all say the same thing. This is just a world-class human being. We should be proud as an organization to have him represent us every day.”

Adams and Granato didn’t divulge who the 2022-23 captain will be. That announcement will be made with pomp, as is hockey’s tradition.

But all signs point to Okposo wearing the “C” for the first time since the Sabres unstitched it from Jack Eichel’s sweater three weeks before last season began. The club named Okposo and forward Zemgus Girgensons co-alternates and declined to name a full captain upon trading Eichel in November.

Okposo also just had his best statistical season since signing with the Sabres six years ago. He finished third on the team with 21 goals.

“He’s as good a leader as I’ve ever been around,” Granato said, “and that’s as a player, coach and with other teams.

“Just the way the referees approach him and respect him, you see it. He commands it. You see the impact of his whole career through opponents we play against. That can only occur over a duration of excellence.”

Adams echoed that sentiment, saying Okposo is “right at the top of the list of impressive leaders that I’ve looked up to and respected.” Adams was a teammate of NHL captains such as Mats Sundin, Wendel Clark, Scott Mellanby, Ron Francis, Rod Brind’Amour, Doug Weight, Shane Doan and Martin Lapointe.

“He definitely deserves” to be captain, said Girgensons, the longest-tenured Sabre. “Since the day he came in, I always thought he was captain material, and there’s no one else I would want to be the next captain for us.”

Captain material hasn’t always fit Okposo so snugly. The 34-year-old laughed when he was asked the last time he wore the “C.” It happened at an under-18 tournament, leading Team USA into the 2005 Hlinka Gretzky Cup in Czech Republic and Slovakia.

The No. 7  pick in the 2006 NHL draft wasn’t a captain at Shattuck-St. Mary’s School, for the Des Moines Buccaneers of the USHL or with the University of Minnesota.

“I never thought of myself as a leader,” Okposo said. “I just try to make the right decision. Sometimes, that means there are hard conversations to have, which is fine as long as, in my bones, I’m doing the right thing.

“Earlier in my professional life, that wasn’t the easiest thing to do. I didn’t have the confidence as a person yet to do that all the time. Sometimes, I made the wrong decision and it would eat at me and eat at me.

“Now, I’m just a bit more comfortable in my own skin that when something needs to be addressed, I’ll address it. That’s how I try and live my life.”

A year ago, with Buffalo nonetheless in free fall despite firing coach Ralph Krueger, Okposo’s intuition told him Granato needed peace of mind.

Granato, the newly appointed interim coach, started his NHL career with six straight losses. The latest was a painful collapse against the Philadelphia Flyers after taking a 3-0 lead into the third period at home. Spanning both coaches, the Sabres had lost 18 in a row, all but three in regulation.

The next night — at 7:42 p.m. on March 30, 2021 — Okposo thumbed out a text to his forlorn coach. Granato shared it with The Athletic:

“Just wanted to let you know the guys are getting your message and things are moving in the right direction. I know it’s not an easy situation to come into but you’re doing great. Looking forward to getting a win tomorrow night. Have a great night!”

Granato read Okposo’s words and found immediate comfort. Granato recalled sleeping well that night, his veteran forward having struck the perfect tone at the perfect time.

“It was one of the best text messages I’ve ever received as a person,” Granato said. “The essence of it was ‘We believe in what we’re doing, and we will win tomorrow. I hope you sleep well.‘ It was a really, really special text that I will never forget.

“That was a significant turning point. It was really helpful for me as a coach. The guys had put in a lot of work and believed.”

Over the Sabres’ four ensuing games, they destroyed the Flyers 6-1, scored with four seconds left to force overtime in a loss to the New York Rangers, scored with 3:41 left to defeat the Rangers in a shootout and beat the New Jersey Devils 5-3 for their first road victory in 41 days.

The NHL’s worst team finished 9-11-2 following Okposo’s text and averaged almost a full goal more than they did the rest of the season. Okposo lasted only nine of those remaining games. A broken cheekbone ended his season early. But the Sabres went 5-2-2 with him. He recorded six assists and was a plus-4.

“He has the ability to really have a feel for the locker room that I think is very rare,” Adams said, “where a player can look not just at his own game, but to be aware of what the team needs.

“He’s become so valuable, where Donny can really lean on him to say, ‘This is what I’m thinking. We need more of this or less of this.’ Kyle just gives a very honest, spot-on assessment. He’s built that trust.”


Okposo’s time in Buffalo has been a tilt-a-whirl. In 2016, following eight-plus seasons with the New York Islanders, the Sabres signed him for six years and $42 million.

He was selected for the All-Star Game and was averaging 19 minutes, 0.29 goals and 0.69 points a game when an otherwise unremarkable hit into the boards unleashed an astounding chain of frightful health issues.

A neck/head injury in March 2017 triggered a manic episode, awakened repressed memories and caused days-long insomnia. Okposo begged his wife to put him in a coma somehow. He considered jumping out a window so he could sleep. He lost 12 pounds by the time he was admitted to Buffalo General Hospital’s neurosurgical ICU, where he stayed for a week and a half.

“Every teammate was worried about him — intensive care,” Girgensons said. “We wanted him to be OK. This wasn’t just about hockey. Coming back from that type of injury, when it’s something with the head, it’s very hard mentally to get back into it.”

Okposo eventually found the proper treatment for his issue: Neck manipulations that helped almost instantly. He played 76 games and 78 games the next two seasons, but a coaching change from Dan Bylsma to Phil Housley altered Okposo’s role, moving him further down the lineup.

Krueger arrived for 2019-20 and planted Okposo at the bottom of the forward group. On opening night, Okposo skated a team-low 8:40.

“I had to adapt with no time to feel sorry for yourself,” Okposo said. “I said I wasn’t ever going to complain. I was just going to play my game and be confident and do everything I could to support the team.”

His offensive contributions spiked in Granato’s system, which simply is more fun to play than Krueger’s beige monotony.

Okposo recorded 21 goals and 24 assists while averaging 16:47 of ice. His eight power-play goals were one fewer than the career-high from his first full Islanders season.

“The best way I can describe it is how I played hockey from when I was 7 years old to when I was 18 or 19,” Okposo said. “He allows you to play free. It allowed me to get back in that frame of mind where you’re just playing.

“That’s been the best representation of me as a player, the last 85 games or so that I’ve played since Donny took over.”

Okposo, of course, wasn’t the only Sabre to experience a statistical outburst under Granato. Tage Thompson broke out. Jeff Skinner got dangerous again. Rasmus Dahlin performed more like the No. 1 overall draft pick everybody expected to see.

Offensive wherewithal isn’t necessary to establish leadership, but it certainly helps.

The past season was considered another Okposo comeback. For the second time since he joined the Sabres, he was nominated for the Masterton Memorial Trophy for perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey. The first time was after his hospitalization.

Okposo’s resurgence puts him in position to speak with even more authority when he earns quality shifts and can show young Buffalo players — through action — how to carry themselves as professionals.

“He competes like no one else,” Granato said. “I remember thinking, ‘I have to get Kyle into a predominant role in our group based on what I’m watching and the commitment he shows.’ When I was able to do that and he thrived, I enjoyed watching it happen as a coach and a friend.”

“I know he wants more, and I know he believes he can get more. I believe the same.”

What a turn 2021-22 was for Okposo.

Not long ago, his big contract was one fans and media wondered if Buffalo management should buy out. If not, then he seemed like a safe bet to drift away when his deal expires after the upcoming season.

Today, Okposo is considered indispensable.

“He’s worth every penny and more,” Granato said. “There’s so many things he does for this organization you cannot possibly quantify.”

Birds were chirping all around Okposo in the front yard of his Clarence, N.Y., home during a recent interview.

He’d just returned from a preschool Father’s Day ceremony, where he got to wear a construction paper tie, hear the kids sing, and see their artwork.

“I tell my wife this: I wouldn’t trade places with any one person on the planet for any one minute,” Okposo said. “I’m truly happy. I’m very fortunate. I love my life.”

Kyle and Danielle Okposo are building another house back in Minnesota to be closer to their families. They have four children — Elliana, 8, Odin, 6, Livia, 4, and Emmett, 2 — and realized during the COVID pandemic how important it was to get back home.

That’s the version of Okposo that resonates with Girgensons most.

“He’s been a mentor, a big friend, a big influence on my career, a true leader,” Girgensons said while playing peek-a-boo with 17-month-old Hadlee. His wife Katie gave birth to their son, Lucas, last month. “Not just the hockey stuff, his personal life is something I’ve always taken notes on. There are so many things in life that I’ve taken from him.”

Constructing a house back in the Twin Cities doesn’t mean Kyle Okposo is looking beyond the next phase of the Sabres’ rebuild.

He said he wants to stay with the Sabres as long as possible, to remain a leader whether he wears the “C” or not.

“It’d be a huge honor,” Okposo said. “If it’s something the organization wanted to do, it would be very special for me, but I don’t need it.

“I’m not going to become a different person with or without it. Everybody kind of knows who I am, and that won’t change with a different letter.”

Okposo stressed one of the most critical aspects of leadership is to teach the next generation how to take the torch and keep sprinting with it.

To that end, he was reminded of an infuriating first period April 22 in KeyBank Center.

The Flyers bullied their way to a 2-0 lead. The Sabres were sloppy and half-asleep. Okposo was livid. He planned a brimstone speech for the dressing room.

You better believe he was going to name names.

“I was going to blow a gasket,” Okposo said.

Then Thompson fired a shot that struck him in the knee, sending Okposo to the trainer’s table instead. The puck hit Okposo in the precise spot where Eichel had incapacitated him during 2016 training camp. Okposo thought his season was done.

“Now, I’m pissed that I wasn’t in the room for the first intermission,” Okposo said. “But I loved what happened. I was going to say something to the guys, but I didn’t have to. By the time I got back, everybody had sorted it out themselves.”

Not until he warmed up for the second period was Okposo convinced enough to continue skating. Then, 3:17 later, he scored a power-play goal. At the end of the second period, the Sabres led 4-3. They locked down a scoreless third period for the victory.

Buffalo went 16-9-3 from March onward, creating a sense of hockey hope that hadn’t been felt in Western New York since Ville Leino was considered an important signing.

“I’ve had a lot of moments since the season ended,” Okposo said, “where I just stop and think and lose myself in reflection of everything that’s happened the last six years. I’ve been getting emotional about how hard it’s been but how rewarding that it is.

“People can feel it, whether you’re in the locker room, in the stands or watching from afar. The onus is going to be on all these young guys pretty soon to continue to build this thing. Hopefully guys like me and Zemgus will be around a little while longer. You don’t overstay your welcome, but there’s definitely something happening here that has some serious potential.”

“There he goes. One of God's own prototypes.

A high-powered mutant of some kind, never even considered for mass production.

Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”

 

Twitter: @HKTheResistance

 

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I’ll just forward them to Bridgett. comssvet11

Seek help. soflabillsfan

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