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Toughest year ever behind him, Sabres' Okposo looks ahead

In the grand scheme, Kyle Okposo feels pretty good. One year ago, he'd just been released from a neuro intensive care unit and wasn't sure if he'd ever play hockey again. He's healthy and lasted the entire season.

It wasn't a good season, however. The Buffalo Sabres were bad, and so was Okposo.

So from a hockey standpoint, Okposo doesn't feel good at all.

"It was the toughest year mentally that I've ever had," Okposo said. "Like, it was a lot."

Okposo knew he was letting the Sabres down. He'd fallen out of the conversation regarding the NHL's most productive wingers. He was slow. Many nights, he handled the puck like he'd never played.

"I felt really disjointed this year, and I think it reflected in my play," he said.

Okposo traces the problems to last April. A concussion and a resulting reaction to medication landed him in the hospital. He started skating during the summer, but by then it was too late.

"The training wasn't there," Okposo said. "I didn't have that base. I didn't have the mechanics."

When he took the ice, the NHL had passed him by. He was minus-5 in the first two games. It took him 11 games to score a goal and 21 games to reach three. He was unrecognizable when he returned to New York at Christmastime. He was nearly a point-per-game player for the Islanders, yet he faced them with just five goals and 10 assists in 34 games.

A solid finish made some of the final numbers respectable. He scored four goals in the final five games, finishing with 15. He had 29 assists, including 13 in 16 games from January to February.

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But his 44 points in 76 games were the lowest for a full season since he had 39 as a rookie in 2008-09. Okposo was a ghastly minus-34, the second-worst number in the NHL and worst among forwards.

"I just need to get back to having a good summer of training," he said in KeyBank Center. "It's going to be a lot more focused on my body and getting my body to where it needs to be."

He knows push-ups and cardio won't cut it. Okposo turns 30 on Monday, and there were times he looked older while heading up ice.

"I definitely have to fix my skating," Okposo said. "It wasn't very good this year. I think I said I felt disconnected, so I want to focus on that and just getting back to being able to play at that high level all the time. I just didn't feel like I had it this year.

"I think that the biggest thing is functionality and fluidity, just being connected with your body. You see the way that these kids coming up can skate and the way they can turn and how good they are on their edges."

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Okposo's struggles would have been bad enough on their own. Couple them with the Sabres' lowly standing and his contract status, and the fall really stuck out. Okposo still has five years remaining on a deal that averages $6 million per season. Even though his no-movement clause transitions to a limited no-trade clause July 1, it's not pretty for Buffalo.

Considering how far the Sabres are from a Stanley Cup, it's not that pretty for an aging veteran, either.

"I don't have regrets about signing here," Okposo said. "You can't look back on it like that. I have regrets of where we are and where we are as a team. We're a lot further back than I thought we'd be in the process. I thought that we would be further ahead, so we have to look at some things and change them.

"It's one thing to realize you need change, but it's another thing to actually do it."

With a full offseason ahead, Okposo intends to do it.

"Looking back on this year or looking back to where I was a year ago, all things considered I'm pretty happy," Okposo said. "I'm going to get back to doing what I can do best. I'll take a couple weeks here, but I'm going to get right back at it."

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