Kyle Okposo was named Buffalo’s captain Oct. 8. ©2023, Micheline Veluvolu

Kyle Okposo wants Sabres to embrace expectations, set Stanley Cup goal

Buffalo Sabres captain Kyle Okposo was about to put his son, Odin, to bed when he received a call that his new one-year, $2.5 million contract had been completed.

Moments later, when Odin walked out to brush his teeth, Okposo told him that he would be playing another season.

“His reaction was worth it,” an emotional Okposo said on a Zoom call Thursday. “Sometimes I forget how much it means to them, especially my older two kids.”

Okposo, 35, needed a moment to collect himself as he recalled how his family learned of the new deal, which was announced Wednesday.

About 20 minutes after telling Odin, Okposo went for a walk when his wife, Danielle, and daughter, Ellie, pulled up. After he relayed the special news, he could hear Ellie screaming with excitement as the car drove away.

“It definitely is a huge factor in my decision making, your family, because you’re not just thinking about yourself,” Okposo said. “You’re thinking about them and what this means to them as well.”

Okposo, who was named the Sabres’ 20th full-time captain Oct. 8, understands his career is nearing the end. The veteran winger acknowledged he can’t commit to anything beyond next season, which will be his 17th in the NHL. Right now, he’s the oldest player on Buffalo’s roster.

After the Sabres fell one win short of a playoff berth last month, Okposo said little about his future. On Thursday, he explained he took a couple of weeks “to decompress and emotionally reset.” He talked to his family and others close to him.

He knew his teammates wanted him back. When he sat down with Danielle to figure out his next step, he quickly realized he had another season in him.

“It became pretty evident in those conversations that I wanted to play, and I was going to come back,” he said. “So it happened decently fast.”

The Sabres, of course, have developed into one of the NHL’s up-and-coming young teams. Having come so close this season – the Florida Panthers, who finished one point ahead of them, will be playing for the Stanley Cup – Okposo feels a sense of unfinished business.

When he signed a seven-year, $42 million contract with the Sabres in 2015, he believed they were closer to a championship than the New York Islanders, the team he departed.

Okposo has endured some difficult times in Buffalo, including two last-place finishes. But the Sabres, after more than a decade of futility, are expected to make the playoffs next season.

“I just think we’re scratching the surface,” he said. “I think that it’s pretty evident by what’s happened in the playoffs this year that we’re not very far from reaching the top of the mountain and it’s something that I had set out to do when I had my introductory press conference, and I did not know how much work was gonna have to go into it.

“But I think that we’re extremely close.”

The Sabres have usually been extremely close to the bottom, so dealing with expectations will be a new experience. Simply contending for a playoff berth and enjoying a 42-win, 91-point season in 2022-23 represented significant progress.

“Last year, there was no expectations,” Okposo said. “And everybody’s writing rosey articles and this group is a good team, it’s becoming a good team. And that’s great, but how do you do that with expectations? There’s guys that are starting to get bigger contracts, there’s guys that are starting to get noticed nationally. There’s going to be lofty expectations next year, and I think that we can’t run from that.”

Okposo said the Sabres must set a goal higher than just making the playoffs or being two points better. They need to accept the expectations.

“So you set the goal of winning a Stanley Cup, and 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,” he said. “You set that goal and you know that it’s there and then you take it a day at a time and you get better, like Kevyn (Adams) has always said and like Donny (Granato) says, you want to get better every day.

“But we cannot run from those expectations anymore. Like, the time is now. … Our window, I think it’s opening and we have to be prepared for that.”

Okposo expects more of himself next season. He scored 11 goals and 28 points in 75 game last season, a 10-goal, 17-point drop from the previous campaign. Much of that dip can be attributed to losing most of his time on the power play to a youngster. He recorded just one power-play goal after scoring eight in 2021-22.

Still, Okposo, who has embraced a checking role for several seasons, won’t use that as an excuse.

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

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