BUFFALO – So far, just 39 games into his career here, Kyle Okposo has lived up to his billing as one of the NHL’s most underrated scorers. The winger has quietly been the Sabres’ most consistent forward, compiling 12 goals and 27 points, both team highs.
Okposo’s strong season was rewarded Tuesday with a spot in the NHL All-Star Game for the first time in his 10-year career. The Minnesota native will represent the Atlantic Division at the game Jan. 29 in Los Angeles.
Okposo said he was “a little bit” surprised when general manager Tim Murray told him Tuesday morning he had been chosen as the Sabres’ lone representative.
“I was thinking there was a couple guys (worthy),” Okposo said prior to the Sabres’ game against the Philadelphia Flyers inside KeyBank Center. “We got some really good young players on our team. I think (Rasmus Ristolainen) has had a standout year. Look at the three defensemen they took from our division. Tough competition. That being said, I’m really excited to be going.”
The minute-munching Ristolainen has enjoyed a stellar season, becoming the Sabres’ MVP. The Finn has three goals and a team-high 24 assists.
Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman, Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson and Montreal’s Shea Weber were the three Atlantic Division defensemen chosen.
The four teams – each division is represented – have six forwards, three defensemen and two goalies.
Where would the Sabres be without Okposo? Entering Tuesday, he had scored 13.8 percent of the team’s goals. Only five Sabres – Gilbert Perreault, Rick Martin, Ray Sheppard, Pat LaFontaine and Jack Eichel in 2015-16 – have led the team in goals in their first season.
Okposo, who previously played for the New York Islanders, signed a seven-year, $42 million contract July 1.
“It feels like it’s a bit of a reward for my play,” Okposo said. “This year is probably not the best statistical year that I’ve had. … Coming here and everything being new, the guys make it easy. But at times, it’s difficult. I’m just trying to get used to everything. Still trying to get cemented in the lineup somewhere. So it definitely feels good.”
Beyond his on-ice talents, Okposo’s attitude and professionalism have impressed Sabres coach Dan Bylsma.
Okposo said he plans to “soak everything in” during the NHL All-Star weekend.
“It’s going to be a pretty cool event with it being the 100th year of the NHL, a lot of special players from throughout the years that are going to be there,” he said.
Okposo said he hasn’t been an all-star since he was a 17-year-old in the junior United States Hockey League.
Apparently, zero goals in 35 games was enough for the Sabres, who waived center Derek Grant on Tuesday.
If Grant goes unclaimed, he will likely be assigned to the AHL Rochester Americans.
After signing a one-year, two-way contract in July, Grant, 26, enjoyed a huge preseason, scoring three goals and six points in five games.
But Grant produced little after forcing his way onto the roster. While the fourth-liner won some faceoffs, he mustered only three assists.
Incredibly, Grant has never scored a goal in his 75 NHL appearances.
Grant, however, is a lethal AHL scorer, having compiled 27 goals and 45 points in only 36 games last season with the Stockton Heat, the Calgary Flames’ affiliate.
He could be expendable because winger Tyler Ennis is close to returning after missing two months following groin surgery.
The flu bug going around the Sabres dressing room hit goalie Robin Lehner, so the Swede missed Tuesday’s game.
Backup Anders Nilsson subbed, his third start in four games. The Sabres also recalled goalie Linus Ullmark from the Amerks.
Ullmark, who played 20 games with the Sabres last season, was named an AHL All-Star last week. The Swede, 23, is 14-13-1 with a 3.06 goals-against average and a .906 save percentage in 28 AHL games.
Meanwhile, rookie winger William Carrier returned after missing two games with the flu.
The Sabres scratched defensemen Josh Gorges (hip) and Dmitry Kulikov (back).
With a power-play goal and two assists Tuesday, Sabres center Sam Reinhart has three scores and 12 points in the last 10 games. Reinhart has 18 assists through 40 contests, just one less than he compiled in 79 games last season.
“I don’t think there’s any reason for it,” Reinhart said. “I think I’ve been more an assist guy (in my career).”