BUFFALO – Kyle Okposo said he figured everything would be normal again. When the season started, the Sabres winger felt healthy. Five months had passed since a harrowing concussion hospitalized him.
Okposo thought he could immediately showcase the talents that made him an NHL All-Star last season, his first with the Sabres.
But Okposo, 29, struggled early, looking nothing like his old self.
The veteran mustered two assists in his first 10 games. He scored his first goal in his 11th outing and had only three goals in his first 26 appearances.
“It was tougher than I thought, just to get back in the swing of things, just to get back playing again and kind of (have) a routine again,” Okposo said Wednesday after the Sabres prepared for tonight’s road tilt against the New York Rangers.
These days, Okposo talks about his struggles like they’re over. With five points in the last two games, he’s one of the Sabres’ hottest scorers coming out of their bye week.
“I really like the place I’m at now,” said Okposo, who recorded a goal and two points in last Thursday’s 3-1 win against the Columbus Blue Jackets at KeyBank Center.
Okposo has looked much more comfortable in the last month, creating offense by aggressively pursuing and carrying the puck.
“It’s definitely been better, (I) just have better jump and more consistency to my game,” Okposo said. “It was a tough start, a really tough start mentally for me and physically just coming back from last year. So I’m still building. I want to continue to improve, I want to continue to get better. I still think I’ve got more to give.”
Okposo has compiled seven goals, 24 points and a minus-16 rating in 42 games. His recent production – four goals and 13 points in the last 16 contests, a 21-goal, 67-point pace over a full season – is in line with his normal stat line.
The American compiled 19 goals and 45 points in 65 games last season. In the last five non-lockout campaigns, he has averaged 22 goals and 55 points.
“I really want to get back at a level that I know I’m capable of, being an elite player,” said Okposo, who’s in the second season of a seven-year, $42 million contract. “I feel like it’s been a trying year for me mentally, but there’s some things I really liked about my game in the last 20, I’m really looking forward to just keep getting better. I want to get back to a place where every night I’m helping my team.”
Okposo believes his skating – “When I’m moving my feet and hunting guys down,” he said – illustrates how well he’s playing.
“That’s probably the biggest thing for me,” he said. “Sometimes where I’m not as into the game I get a little bit less assertive and just kind of hope the puck’s going to come to me instead of going after it, hunting it down.”
Sabres coach Phil Housley said Okposo’s “work and compete, especially away from the puck,” has helped buoy him.
“Kyle was doing a great job of that just disrupting the play,” Housley said.
Naturally, Okposo’s long slump took its toll on him. But in the last two months, he said he’s starting to feel more like himself away from the rink.
A self-described “hockey junkie,” Okposo said he likes to watch a lot of games.
“It’s tough to watch games when you’re not playing very well and you’re not feeling like yourself,” he said. “I think over the break I had a game on all the time, just really watching it, watching what’s happening around the league.”