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Mike Harrington: Okposo knows Sabres are desperate for return on their investment

You hate that it comes down to money. Especially when there was a time a few months ago where hockey was downright irrelevant as we thought of Kyle Okposo.

But the veteran winger got through his health scare that landed him in a neuro ICU unit. He was well enough to play summer league hockey back in Minnesota and was good to go when Sabres training camp opened.

Then the season started. An October illness sapped his strength. A prolonged goal drought has chipped away at his confidence.

A quarter of the season is gone. Okposo has two goals. Two.

This is a guy who has seven seasons of 18 or more. Three seasons of 22 or more. He had 19 in 65 games for the Sabres last year, a 24-goal pace for a whole season.

He's the guy the Sabres signed to the biggest free agent contract in their history in the summer of 2016. Okposo got seven years and $42 million. With five years left on the deal, that $6 million cap hit sure looks like an albatross these days.

The Sabres have too many bad contracts as it is. This can't be another one. Particularly since it likely means it will be exceedingly difficult to keep Evander Kane, who has simply been by far the best player on the team this season.

Okposo has been better of late, with 14 shots on goal in the five games entering Wednesday's matchup with Minnesota. But the production he's paid for has yet to appear. He's at nine points through 20 games, a pace that leaves him far below his average of 57 points the last four seasons.

"It is what it is. The games are gone and you're not going to get them back," Okposo said before Wednesday's contest. "I obviously would like to be contributing more offensively and have those numbers but I don't. I just have to keep going, keep trying to make things happen offensively and be better defensively. I still think I have another gear, more to give and you can't look at the past. Just move forward."

The Wraparound: Wild 5, Sabres 4

Okposo has been more active of late. He had four shots on goal in Monday's 3-2 loss to Columbus and just failed to connect on a loose puck in the crease in the final minute with the Sabres pressing for a tying goal after being in a 3-0 hole with 11 minutes left.

"The chances the last two games, those have to go into the net," he said. "I take a lot of pride in scoring goals and putting up numbers. It's definitely a tough pill to swallow but I've been through a lot worse in my career where you go through 5-6 games with no chances whatsoever and that's when you really start to wonder. I'm not looking to reinvent the wheel. I'm looking to just dig a little bit deeper, work a little bit harder."

The biggest question, of course, is Okposo's health. Obviously, he wouldn't be on the ice at all if there were any issues still lingering from the spring, when he had a bad reaction to medication while being treated for a concussion.

Sabres' Okposo details his illness in open letter to fans

But if Okposo needed any official confirmation there's no problems, he got it Nov. 14 in Pittsburgh after taking a thunderous hit from 230-pound enforcer Ryan Reaves.

"It left me thinking a lot the next few days," Okposo admitted. "I'm thinking, 'Am I Ok? What's going on? Do I feel this? Oh, I feel this. Is that OK?' It kind of plays in your head a little bit but it all turned out fine. So I have no concerns."

"That was a pretty heavy hit to the head," said coach Phil Housley. "I look back to training camp at how fast he looked and how good he was playing. Then he got sick and it affected him, the production went down and his confidence went down. That hit was a really good telling tale that he's back."

Okposo admits he's a huge self-evaluator. He had no goals in the first 10 games of the season so he was going to be behind for the duration, given that poor start. But he doesn't sit and wallow in his situation. His wife, Danielle, is a chief confidante. So is Darryl Belfry, a Canadian who is one of the game's renowned mental and physical skills coaches and runs summer camps for NHL players in Naples, Fla.

"You just have to keep going and trust your game. If you don't, it will drive you nuts," Okposo said. "I trust myself. When I'm not going well, I have a lot of tools I use to get out of it, a lot of people I talk to, people who have watched me play every single game for many years.

"They know what to look for in my game. I lean on those things heavily. I don't sit here and say, 'It will turn'. I actively try to do things that I know are going to work and that I believe in."

There are times you watch Okposo and he plays a slow, plodding game. Other times he gets his feet moving and can drive the net to create opportunity. That simply hasn't happened enough this year.

"When he works and makes his mind up that he's going to make a difference, it's really evident," Housley said. "I can see that he's getting the chances. He a guy that really evaluates himself and puts a lot of burden on himself because it's about production."

One problem right now for Okposo is that he was dropped out of the top six in the Sabres' forward group Wednesday, moving to a line with Jordan Nolan and Jacob Josefson, not the way you'd draw up getting your ice-cold $42 million free agent scoring again.

Okposo had one golden chance Wednesday but was stopped on the doorstep by Devan Dubnyk with 30 seconds left and the Sabres pressing for the tie in their 5-4 defeat. Bent over at the waist in a portrait of frustration, he was the last Sabre off the ice after their seventh straight loss.

Okposo had been a regular with Benoit Pouliot and Ryan O'Reilly but it simply wasn't working so the Sabres continue to make moves with their forwards to try to snap their funk.

"That's the definition of insanity, right? You can't do the same thing," he said. "We're going to keep trying to find different combinations, try to do something new."

 

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