Kyle Okposo has spent the season leading the Buffalo Sabres by example and has put up his best offensive numbers in his six years here. Although 21 goals and 45 points is a solid showing, his impact on the club is about far more than stats.
The 34-year-old has made Buffalo his year-round home and the alternate captain has become one of the franchise’s key leaders. Okposo said Wednesday he was honored by this week’s news that he is the Sabres’ nominee for the NHL’s Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy.
“I love the game, I love it here and I try and show that every day through how I act and how I interact with people,” Okposo said Wednesday in KeyBank Center. “And to be recognized for something like that, it’s definitely special.”
Each team gets a nominee for the Masterton, which is voted on by members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association and honors perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey. The winner from among the 32 nominees is announced as part of the NHL Awards Show, to be held this year during the Stanley Cup final.
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“Unrelenting determination is what comes to mind,” said coach Don Granato. “Even when he was challenged and not playing well and it was a challenging time for him, he just had persevering qualities, just no quit. … His determination is infectious.”
The team’s young players often have spoken this season about the impact Okposo has had on them in the dressing room and on the road.
“I’m fortunate to be able to have lots of conversations with him and kind of listen and learn,” said Peyton Krebs, whose locker is the next stall from Okposo’s. “He’s an unbelievable leader, unbelievable person. I think anyone in this whole organization would say that. Watching him, I think he is the best leader I could have to look up to.
“He’s got an awesome family. He takes care of people. He’ll talk to anybody. What he does on the ice, obviously, his work ethic, everything is unbelievable. What he does off the ice, it’s something really to aspire to. A great leader for me. I really look up to him.”
Okposo had just nine goals over the last two seasons, only two last year. So he said he changed his summer training pattern and skated less heading into training camp in September.
“Last year at the end of the year, I felt like I was in a really good spot mentally. I just tried to mentally reset and keep that momentum going and stay in that right frame of mind,” he said. “And so I got on the ice a little bit later, and then ramped it up pretty quickly, tried to do more in the gym just to make sure that everything was stable, and my body was ready to handle the grind of an 82-game season again.”
Okposo, who will play next season in the final year of his seven-year, $42 million contract, said he’s thrilled by the progress multiple Sabres players have made this year and by the club’s collective work ethic.
“We still have guys going out there 25 minutes early today, last practice of the year,” Okposo said. “That’s not normal for this time of year. But it’s the norm around here. And that’s all that matters: What we do as a group, and how we act.”
Okposo, who appeared to twist an ankle in practice Monday, did not skate Wednesday and his status for the season’s final two games has yet to be determined.
Granato seemed to indicate it’s not likely Okposo plays Thursday in Boston and he was kept off the ice from the final practice in hopes he could make it back for Friday’s season finale here against Chicago.
Granato is expected to start Dustin Tokarski in goal Thursday with the hope that Craig Anderson could start here Friday. Anderson practiced fully Wednesday.
Boston posted its 50th win of the season Tuesday night with a 4-2 victory over Florida that temporarily derailed the Panthers’ push for the Presidents’ Trophy. With two games left, Boston is three points behind Tampa Bay for third in the Atlantic Division and appears headed for the first wild-card and a first-round playoff matchup against Carolina.
The Sabres are 0-4-1 in their last five games against Boston, including 0-2-1 this year. The last meeting was a 4-3 overtime loss on New Year’s Day in TD Garden.
Overall, this series has been a disaster for Buffalo in recent years. The Sabres are 1-12-3 in their last 16 games against the Bruins and 0-6-2 in their last eight trips to TD Garden, with no wins there since Dec. 16, 2018.
“I am glad to hear that they are playing the full lineup, and that it is a meaningful game for them,” Granato said. “It’s gonna push us to be better, it’s going to present a challenge for us and our guys want to be challenged because they know it’s going to make them better.”