BUFFALO – Almost seven years ago, captain Kyle Okposo stood at a podium in KeyBank Center and explained he chose the Sabres as a free agent because he believed they possessed all the ingredients to win the Stanley Cup.
Today, with his $42 million contract about to expire, Okposo hasn’t played a single playoff series with the Sabres.
“But if I were to walk away and be done, I think I left here better than I found it,” Okposo said Saturday as the Sabres held end-of-season meetings following their 91-point finish.
A day after what he called an “emotional” season ended, Okposo, who turns 35 today, did not reveal much about his future. The winger wants to talk to his family before he makes a decision. He said his body feels good.
The 16-year veteran can become an unrestricted free agent this summer. Still, if he keeps playing, he wants to stay in Buffalo.
“There’s nowhere else that I would want to be,” Okposo said. “I’ve put a lot of effort and energy in here and this is where I want to be.”
Okposo has played a major role in transforming the Sabres from the NHL’s laughingstock into one of its up-and-coming young teams.
While they fell two points short of the playoffs and missed for a recording-setting 12th consecutive season, they appear poised to take more significant steps next year. They just recorded their highest win (41) and point totals since 2010-11.
They finished the season on a 9-2-1 run, staying in the playoff chase until the 80th game.
A lot has gone into the Sabres’ revival. Okposo’s leadership and the culture he has fostered – he wants to allow everyone to be themselves – stands at the top of list.
“Every guy in the room will say he’s obviously the rock of our team, he’s the leader,” Sabres center Casey Mittelstadt said. “I think for me personally, he’s just always there for you. There’s nothing more you can really ask for. He’s always got your back, whatever you need, you can always call Okie. He’s a pretty special guy.”
Sabres winger Jeff Skinner said: “It’s hard to overstate how much he means to the group. … I can’t think of a better role model for these young guys in how he goes about his business and how he treats everyone else.”
The Sabres have grown close, and it shows on the ice. They play for each other.
“It’s a funny balance in the NHL between good culture and good on-ice product,” said Okposo, who was named captain prior to the season. “You can have really good players that mesh really well together and have good chemistry. And off the ice, you might not have the best relationship.
“But I personally believe that if you have a really good dynamic and you have a culture that’s accepting, that’s cohesive, that’s open, then it’s going to only make that bond on the ice stronger.”
Okposo sees evidence of that bond when players have conversations in the dressing room they couldn’t just a few years ago.
“Everyone is able to walk in here and say whatever they think and they’re not going to be judged or they’re not going to be vilified for it and people feel like they’re valued,” he said. “Every time we have one of those moments, I kind of take a step back and it makes me happy to realize how far we’ve come.”
Okposo has also come a long way. Early in his tenure here, it seemed unlikely he would remain healthy enough to finish his contract. Late in his first season, he suffered a frightening concussion that left him hospitalized in intensive care.
“After my first year, the way that it ended with the concussion, if you were to tell me that I’d play out the remainder of my deal and be where I am today, I probably would’ve said you’re lying,” he said.
After he recovered, he suffered more concussions and struggled to regain his old form. But over the last four seasons, he has enjoyed a late-career comeback and established himself as one of the Sabres’ most consistent checking presences.
“I’m grateful, happy, just trying to grind, try to do what I can to help this organization, help this franchise, the city, and just be myself,” said Okposo, who compiled 11 goals and 28 points in 74 games this season. “It’s led to where we’re at now.”
Sabres center Tage Thompson, who missed Friday’s season finale, said he suffered a shoulder injury in Thursday’s 4-3 overtime win against the Ottawa Senators.
Thompson, whose 47 goals and 94 points both led the Sabres, was already battling a hip pointer he suffered March 24. He also revealed that since early February, when he was forced to miss the NHL All-Star Game, he has been dealing with “a lot of low-back stuff.”
“A little banged up there at the end but something that everyone goes through,” he said.
The hip injury sidelined Thompson three games, and when he returned, it hampered him so much that Sabres coach Don Granato moved him to right wing.
Players and coaches usually label injuries simply as upper or lower. But with the season over, Thompson disclosed them.
Notes: Winger Zemgus Girgensons, the Sabres’ longest-tenured player, said he would like to return. The 10-year veteran can become an unrestricted free agent this summer. “With what the team has here and the steps it’s taken, I definitely would like to be a part of this,” he said. … Defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, who will become eligible for a contract extension July 1, said he hasn’t thought about a new deal. “If you start thinking about that stuff it can end up not being good for you,” he said. “It’s not my part, it’s my agent’s stuff.” … The Sabres on Saturday sent rookie winger Lukas Rousek back to the Rochester Americans.