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Mike Harrington: Kyle Okposo's tough nights continue

The Sabres scored five goals Tuesday night without Jack Eichel in the lineup. Kyle Okposo didn't have any. It's been that way most of the season.

Okposo was far from a zero on this night, however. He started the game with Johan Larsson and C.J. Smith, dominated three New Jersey players in the neutral zone on the night's first shift to get the puck headed toward the offensive end and Smith nearly potted his first NHL goal. Okposo later assisted when Smith did, in fact, get that goal early in the second period.

"We talked about what kind of line we are," Larsson said after the 5-1 victory that bedeviled New Jersey. "We've got to be heavy on pucks and that's how we're going to create chances. We may not get too much on the rush. It will be more grind and win battles and he did a real good job of that tonight."

Coaches and teammates notice that kind of play. The scoresheet does not.

With that in mind, here's where Okposo stands while playing in all 43 games: He has six goals and 11 assists for 17 points, with three goals at even strength and three on the power play. He has a minus-six rating and a 47.8 Corsi rating. He has one goal in his last 25 games, one goal and one assist in his last 18 games, and two goals in his last 29 games.

Now a brief pause for the fairness doctrines: Okposo's 77.3 Corsi rating Tuesday night was his best game of the season, as he was on the ice for 17 shots for and only five against. And his plus-minus is hugely improved from last year's hideous minus-34 that was the worst in the NHL among forwards.

But those offensive figures? Those are not pretty for anybody. And when you're talking about a guy who has a seven-year, $42-million free agent contract, they're hard to fathom.

Okposo knows that, too. He's not hiding from anything. Barring an epic hot streak, he's not scoring 25 or 30 goals this year. The way he's going right now, he's going to be lucky to get to 10.

"If I end up with, say, eight goals this year, that would be pretty tough," he said. "I went through a stretch at the beginning of the season where I scored a few (tallying three straight games in October). I know I can do it. I haven't had very many stretches the whole year where I haven't gotten opportunities. That's a good sign but I need to keep finding different ways to do it."

He sure does. The Sabres have a very rough situation at hand here. This is an alternate captain, a respected figure in the dressing room. When former GM Tim Murray signed him on July 1, 2016, this was the consolation prize to not getting Steven Stamkos. Folks around the game blanched at seven years even more than the $6 million annual price tag for someone with three 20-goal seasons on his resume, and three others that ended at 18 or 19.

That's what you pay in free agency. The Sabres were willing to do it and Okposo was willing to leave John Tavares' side for it. So far, he's turned into Matt Moulson Lite.

Of course, there's deeper things going on. Everyone remembers the difficult summer of 2017. A concussion and reaction to medication landed Okposo in the hospital. There were months of hard days and nights. Emotional trauma. Doubts about life itself, let alone resuming a hockey career.

Okposo was enthusiastic when this season started because he got in a real summer of training after being unable to train last year. The impact has been minimal.

"It's tough to look at the numbers. I'm pretty aware. I know exactly where I am," he said. "Of course there's a bigger picture that I'm going to be more aware of than most people for sure. At the same time, if I always go back to that, I'm just not going to be very good at my job. So I don't really look at it like that too much

"You still want to be elite. You want to do things to produce and play at a high level so you have to find ways to actively push for that. Otherwise, you're going to stay stagnant and you're just not going to score."

Okposo's ice-time and shot numbers are up the last five games. He's had 11 shots on goal and twice cracked 14 minutes after playing just 10:08 and 10:53, respectively, the last two games before Christmas.

"As long as I'm in this league, I still feel I can play at a high level and you can never be satisfied with what you're doing," he said. "My numbers are down and my ice time was down for quite a while. That's never easy but you just have to expect more of yourself. Your mentality has to be about making them put you on the ice."

"He's a professional," Larsson said. "Sometimes it goes against you. He's sticking with it. He's contributing and he's a good leader."

Coach Phil Housley has said ad nauseum his team needs to get to the net more. Okposo is one of those guys he's referring to. At 6 feet and 220 pounds, it should be a requisite part of his game. But Okposo has been on the outside far too much.

You wonder where this is headed. There's four more years of this contract. Four more. The Sabres aren't going to buy it out because that would land Okposo on their cap until 2027. Even if Buffalo kept half the money, what team would trade for him right now?

You get limited savings on the cap by sending Okposo to the minors and the Sabres would not do that because they would a) not embarass one of their alternate captains or b) take up any ice time from the Amerks.

Through 18 games, Okposo had five goals and five assists. Then everything just plain stopped. He's not scoring, nor is he setting up anything.

"The puck has been dying on my stick too many times as far as offense goes," he said. "I have to be aggressive, get it moving and make that play, no matter what it is. I want to score. I'm trying to get to the net and find ways. It feels like I haven't been there enough.

"You have to keep shooting, have to go volume with it. You have to trust it's going to go in. Opportunities present themselves when you go volume."

The Sabres are in a bad spot. Okposo is in a worse one. There's still time for him to get things rolling. But his clock is ticking.

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