During the morning skate Tuesday, General Manager Tim Murray motioned to Kyle Okposo. Murray was watching the pre-game practice from the Buffalo Sabres team bench, a typical occurrence, when he had some news to share with the forward he signed over the summer to help rebuild his team.
That's when Okposo learned he was named to the NHL All-Star team.
Okposo admitted to being a "little bit" surprised at getting the Sabres spot on the Atlantic Division roster. But the nod feels like a reward, and a bit of validation for the forward who leads the team with 12 goals and is tied with defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen with 27 points.
"It feels good. 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. With coming here and everything being new, the transition, the guys make it easy but at times it’s difficult, just trying to get used to everything and still get cemented in the lineup somewhere. It definitely feels good. Feels like a reward."
Okposo was a plus-one with two shots Tuesday night in the Sabres 4-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers and continues to be a key component for the team’s power play and top line.
“It’s awesome,” said linemate Ryan O’Reilly who was the Sabres representative at last year’s All-Star Game. “Look what he’s done all year. He’s been our most consistent player, night-in, night-out. The way he’s been creating and making things happen, it’s nice to see him get rewarded. It’s definitely well deserved.”
Okposo signed with the Sabres this summer, inking a seven-year, $42 million deal, after playing his first seven NHL seasons with the New York Islanders. He was an attractive free agent for Buffalo after being part of the Islanders rebuild.
The rebuilding process has come with plenty of frustration in Buffalo, a season filled with starts and stops, with gloriously good periods hockey set back by woefully boring periods of hockey.
At 28, he's an NHL veteran and part of helping a young team find a way to negotiate the ups and downs of a season.
"I think that as we go and as we mature as a team we need to limit those ups and downs," Okposo said. "We’ve got to look at it as a broader picture, as an 82-game schedule and not get so down when things aren’t going well and not get so high when things are good. You’ve got to try and stay a little bit more even-keeled and get better as the year goes on. Try to keep that upward trend."
Okposo is familiar with riding out slumps. He had a stretch of seven games (Dec. 13-Dec. 27) when he didn't score a goal. The last five of those games he didn't register a point.
"I think that’s kind of the way it goes," Okposo said. "I feel like every year there’s a bit of a drop off in stats and I feel if you look at pretty much anybody that plays in the National Hockey League they have a down point at some point throughout the season. It might be three games for some of those top guys, it might be 10 games for other guys. You just have to continue to work through it and make sure you’re doing things to help your team win and try to impact the game in a positive way. I’ve learned that over time and tried to do that. When things are going well you have to work even harder to stay hot and keep putting the puck in the net."
With half a season in Buffalo, Okposo hasn't been surprised by much. He came to the organization without any expectations, but has found a joy in playing for Sabres fans.
"I didn’t really know what to expect," Okposo said of his move to Buffalo. "I’ve been pleasantly surprised, you could say, at how everyone is treated and how the town and the people really rally around this team. That’s something that means a lot to me – playing for people that just really love the Sabres. And they love the Bills. They’re just a big sports town. Hardworking people that just want their teams to succeed and that’s been really nice to see."
In some ways, Okposo’s selection was a surprise. Many thought Ristolainen would get the nod with the way his play has been consistent and game-changing for the Sabres.
But the Atlantic Division is stacked with good defensemen and bumping Victor Hedman (Tampa Bay), Erik Karlsson (Ottawa) or Shea Weber (Montreal) would be difficult.
"I was thinking there are a couple guys," who could go to the All-Star Game, Okposo said. "You know we’ve got some really good young players on our team. I think Risto’s 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."
For the record, the last time Okposo played in an all-star game, he was 17 and on his way to being named Rookie of the Year in the USHL with the Des Moines Buccaneers. That was in 2006.
This time, he gets a trip to Los Angeles for the All-Star Weekend, Jan. 28-29 at Staples Center. And with 2017 being the 100th anniversary of the NHL, the weekend will include the unveiling of the 100 Greatest NHL Players, something Okposo is looking forward to.
“I think it’s going to be a pretty cool event with it being the 100th year of the NHL,” Okposo said. “It’s going to be special with players from throughout the years there. I’m looking forward to meeting guys and talking to people and soaking up the whole experience.”