BUFFALO – Months ago, coach Dan Bylsma and Kyle Okposo talked about different scenarios for the Sabres’ big offseason acquisition in the upcoming season.
Bylsma said he wanted Okposo, 28, to understand he didn’t have to carry the load after signing a seven-year, $42 million contract.
During that conversation, Bylsma said Okposo only talked about one game on the 2016-17 schedule – Friday’s tilt against the New York Islanders, the winger’s first meeting against his old team.
“This was one game he did talk about,” Bylsma said Friday prior to the Sabres’ 3-2 overtime win against the Islanders at KeyBank Center.
A reflective Okposo couldn’t stop smiling Friday morning talking about the Islanders, a team he said he “grew up” with for nine years.
“I left there and I was a veteran guy, I was one of the guys that had been there the longest,” an excited Okposo said hours before he assisted on Rasmus Ristolainen’s winner. “But I still felt like I was one of the young guys because I had just grown up there. I was a young guy when I went.”
Facing the Islanders in Buffalo first made the night easier, although “it was strange,” Okposo said following the game.
“So many times you play with those guys,” said Okposo, who played 529 games with the Islanders. “I know exactly what they’re going to do. … It was an odd game, an odd feeling.”
Okposo seemed emotional Friday greeting some familiar faces from the Islanders and talking about the special friendships he made on Long Island.
“You remember some of the specific games, but you remember the friends that you made,” he said.
He added: “It’s different coming here being a veteran guy where nobody really knows my past.”
Okposo, however, has meshed almost perfectly with the Sabres, scoring a team-high nine goals and 21 points in his first 27 games.
Where has Okposo made the biggest impact for the Sabres?
“That’s a tough one,” Bylsma said. “I would go between leadership of how we need to play and playing the right way, his presence in the offensive zone, his work ethic and his ability holding onto the puck and being tenacious and relentless there. He’s a guy – we’ve had trouble scoring goals – he puts it in the back of the net for us.”
Sabres center Ryan O’Reilly averages more ice time than any NHL forward – 21 minutes, 50 seconds a game entering Friday – but the workhorse skated a season-low 17:08 in Tuesday’s 6-3 win against Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, Ristolainen, a defenseman, averages a team-high 26:39 a game, yet only skated 22:04 on Tuesday, his second-lowest total this season.
What happened? A few things.
For starters, the Sabres didn’t kill any penalties and had only one power play, so special teams time was limited. That allowed the Sabres to roll four lines and three defense pairs.
Secondly, with a few players healthy again, Bylsma can distribute ice time more evenly.
“It was a four-line game against the Kings, and that contributed to it a little bit,” Bylsma said of the reduced ice times. “The lack of special teams was a big part of that, just the one power play in the game for our team, no penalty kills, we had two four-on-four situations. Really, the even-strength times weren’t far off of what they normally are.”
He added: “That was reflective of how it could look going forward for our team if you scratch the special teams from our game.”
Bylsma said before the season he wanted O’Reilly and Ristolainen to play a little less.
O’Reilly, who said he “had a bit more gas” late Tuesday, had played 20 minutes in all but one game this season.
“I’d play every minute if I could,” he said. “I always feel I should be on the ice. That’s the way every guy should feel on the team. Yeah, the minutes were down a little bit last game, but it was a great result. If that’s what it takes to win, let’s do it every time we can.”
Sabres defensemen Zach Bogosian (knee) and Taylor Fedun (shoulder) skated with their teammates again Friday morning. Bylsma said one planned to accompany the team on its two-game road trip, which starts tonight in Carolina.
In other injury news, winger Tyler Ennis (groin) has skated on his own the last three or four days, Bylsma said.
The Sabres scratched center Derek Grant for the third straight game.