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Kyle Okposo’s Sabres return is more than sentimental: ‘Definitely some unfinished business’

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Kyle Okposo took a phone call in his bedroom while his son Odin was brushing his teeth and getting ready for bed. That was the moment Okposo, the Sabres’ captain, learned the deal was complete and he’d be returning for another season on a $2.5 million contract. He walked into the hallway and saw his son and told him, “I’m going to come back and play another year.”

“His reaction was worth it,” Okposo said while fighting back tears. “Sometimes I forget how much it means to them, especially my older two kids.”

Shortly after that, Okposo was taking a walk and his wife and oldest daughter Ellie drove by on their way back from Ellie’s dance lessons.

“I told them and when they were driving away I heard her scream so loud,” Okposo said with a smile. “They were just so happy and excited. It definitely is a huge factor in my decision making, your family, because you’re not just thinking about yourself. You’re thinking about them and what this means for them as well.”

Okposo’s decision isn’t just a sentimental one, but it has to start there, doesn’t it? This is a player universally loved and respected by his teammates and those who work in the organization. The way he struggled through concussion symptoms early in his contract only to emerge as a key contributor again by the end of it. Then last season he took over as captain, a role he handled as well as the Sabres could have hoped.

“I think he’s been the best captain I’ve had,” Zemgus Girgensons said at the end of the season. “He’s one of the guys that I look up to and I think a lot of the success here is because of Kyle and the way he handled things. I think he held the team together, the times in need he was always there. He’s a part that was huge for us.”

That part matters when it comes to Okposo. The Sabres have a lot of young players and will be dealing with new expectations next season. The talent on the roster is obvious. There is no shortage of exciting, young scorers in Buffalo. But experienced and responsible defensive players like Okposo aren’t yet in high supply. And while others are starting to grow into leaders, Okposo is the one those young leaders follow.

Okposo knows that isn’t enough, though. If he just wanted to lead and help out young players, coaching is a fine profession. Shortly after the season ended, Okposo, 35, knew he wanted to keep playing. His body felt good and he thought he had more to give.

“I wasn’t as good offensively as I think that I could have been,” Okposo said. “That stings for me. I’m going to work on some different things this summer to make sure that doesn’t happen again. It’s just doing what is required for the team. This year we were one of the top scoring teams in the league and we needed a little bit more attention to detail on the defensive end. I tried to provide that.”

The individual aspect is only a small part of this for Okposo, though. The Sabres were a point away from qualifying for the playoffs. The Panthers, who edged them late in the season, are on their way to the Stanley Cup Final. That, more than anything, shows Okposo how close the Sabres are.

“There is definitely some unfinished business for sure,” he said. “I’ve been through a lot here as everybody on this call knows. I just think we’re scratching the surface. I think that it’s pretty evident by what happened in the playoffs this year that we’re not very far from reaching the top of the mountain.”

He knows that’s what outside observers are expecting, too. They were a feel-good story the last two seasons, pulling themselves out from the bottom of the standings and giving Buffalo hockey fans hope for the first time in a long while. That doesn’t matter much anymore. This season will be about results, and Okposo is already not being shy about sending that message.

“There’s going to be lofty expectations next year,” Okposo said. “We can’t run from that. You have to set your goal. Should our goal be to make the playoffs? Should our goal be to be two points better than we were this year? No. That’s expected now. So you set the goal of winning a Stanley Cup. Then you don’t touch that and you don’t let that weigh you down at all from the day to day of the season. You set that goal, you know that it’s there and then you build from that and then you take every day at a time and get better like Kevyn (Adams) has always said, like Donny (Granato) says. You want to get better every day. But we cannot run from those expectations anymore. The time is now. Our window, I think, is opening. We have to be prepared for that. Everybody has to come better, starting with me. I think that’s an expectation we have to set.”

A lot has changed for Okposo since he first signed in Buffalo seven years ago. His kids are older now, able to fully grasp the excitement of these moments. The team has undergone more changes than one player should have to sit through. But one thing hasn’t changed. When Okposo had his introductory press conference after signing his seven-year, $42 million contract in 2015, he said he thought the team had the ingredients of a Stanley Cup champion. He believes that now even more strongly after living through the struggles of his first contract.

“It’s something that I set out to do when I had my introductory press conference,” Okposo said. “I did not know how much work was going to have to go into it, but I think we’re extremely close.”

“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.”

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