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Buffalo Sabres

Kyle Okposo’s return brightens Sabres outlook

Buffalo Sabres Right Wing Kyle Okposo (21) before a face-off during second period National Hockey League action between the Buffalo Sabres and Ottawa Senators on February 14, 2017, at Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa, ON, Canada. (Photo by Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire)
Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire

Just one year ago, the future of the Buffalo Sabres was a bright as the dawning sky reflecting on Lake Erie. General manager Tim Murray had acquired Dmitry Kulikov to play alongside Rasmus Ristolainen, and though Murray failed to land the biggest fish of free agency, Steven Stamkos, he’d snagged the next best thing in Kyle Okposo.

Unfortunately for all three, it was not a good season in Buffalo. Kulikov suffered a terrible back injury that plagued him throughout the final season of his contract. He was not re-signed. Murray lacked solutions for the Sabres’ persistent woes. His cantankerous stalking of the halls of Key Bank Center lost its appeal, and owner Terry Pegula subsequently fired the first-time GM.

And the there was Okposo. With six games remaining in the season, Okposo was scratched on March 29 with an illness. His symptoms progressed beyond his control and he was eventually hospitalized. Concerns grew among fans, and diagnoses like meningitis began to be tossed around.

As it turns out, Okposo had suffered a concussion, and the results of that injury were compounded when the medication he took caused a negative reaction in his body. The star forward lost 20 pounds and a lot of sleep through the ordeal, and the community was sincerely worried about him.

An open letter to Sabres fans was released in July, and Okposo detailed the events of the spring and summer recovery. Those included his return to hockey, playing in a Minnesota men’s league. “… I’ve come a long way since March and April,” he wrote, “so it was nice to just play hockey again. I’m healthy and feel great!”

Jason Botterill, Buffalo’s newly-appointed general manager, has the same confidence in Okposo’s ability to return once training camp commences. “We’ve had conversation with him. Everything’s looking great from Kyle,” Botterill told the media. “He physically looks great and mentally looks great.”

This is fantastic news for a Buffalo team that is fast-tracking a mini-rebuild. It wasn’t the slash-and-burn tank style rebuild that Sabres fans have been accustomed to, but more of a change in leadership and its accompanying adjustments in approach. The team has trimmed some fat and addressed its weaknesses, giving hope for success this season, instead of the impending sense of doom that generally resounds along the shores of the Buffalo River.

Okposo will undoubtedly have a huge role in Buffalo’s turnaround season. The former Team USA skater is reunited with his national team coach in Phil Housely, and is excited to get started on the season.

Despite a statistical drop from his previous four years, Okposo had a measurable impact with the Sabres. He sparked a brief comeback in Matt Moulson. He managed to be second on the team in points per 60 minutes played, behind only Jack Eichel and just slightly better than linemate Ryan O’Reilly.

He was top five in every statistical category for the Sabres, and was a leader on one of the league’s best power-play units. He offered 16 assists with the man advantage, adding seven power-play goals. The limited success that the Sabres had in the 2016-17 season came largely because of their effectiveness on the power play, and clearly, Okposo had a hand in that.

With just a few weeks before training camp, the outlook for the Sabres may be more realistic that it was a year ago — something that Buffalo fans struggle with. Few are touting the team as Stanley Cup contenders, but most wouldn’t be surprised to find their team edging into the playoffs. Botterill and the team still have a few questions they’ll need to answer, but with Okposo back and healthy, those expectations have a much higher probability of bearing fruit.

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