Buffalo, N.Y. (WGR 550) – Buffalo Sabres winger Kyle Okposo spent some time with the "Spittin’ Chiclets" gang doing their podcast.
The group covered a lot of ground during the episode, but, of course, the conversation got more interesting when the conversation switched to July 1, 2016 when Okposo became the most sought after free agent in the NHL. That day saw the Sabres sign the winger to a seven-year, $42 million deal.
Okposo scored 19 goals and 26 assists for 45 points in 65 games during the first year of his contract, followed by 15 goals and 29 assists for 44 points in 76 games in Year 2. He came off a 22-goal and 64-point 2015-16 season with the New York Islanders.
The veteran had spent nine years with the Islanders and said, of course, the decision of free agency weighed on him.
“It was hard," said Okposo. "We built something that I think was really special. I grew up with a ton of those guys and we were tight. We went through the tough years, and we were just getting good. It was myself, Frans Nielsen and Matt Martin that all left that year, and it changed the framework of the team.
“I never got offered a deal [from the Islanders], but Buffalo was really high on my list, actually. 'Factor' [Ryan O’Reilly] was here, and 'Eichs' [Jack Eichel], were their one-two centers and I’m like, ‘Man, this team’s going places. This team’s on the rise.'"
Thinking back, things went fast right around the NHL Free Agency period in 2016. This included Steven Stamkos re-signing with the Tampa Bay Lightning just a couple of days before he was set to hit the market.
“Within 45 minutes, [Shea] Weber got traded for [P.K.] Subban, [Taylor] Hall got traded for [Adam] Larsson, and 'Stammer' signed," Okposo recalled of that June 29.
“I was stressed as all getup, and right when all that happened, I had a call with Buffalo, because they were in on 'Stammer'. Once 'Stammer' signed, that’s when Buffalo called and a deal got done pretty quick.”
In his first year with the Sabres, Dan Bylsma was the head coach and Tim Murray was the general manager. All that, plus the players have changed numerous times since.
“I think it has a pretty big impact with how things run," Okposo said. "I think I’ve had three different GMs here, and it’s hard when you have turnover and you have somebody coming in with a new vision. It definitely affects the guys, but throughout the regime changes, I’ve done a good job of just being myself.
“I went into last season and there was a lot of things going on. I’m just going to be unapologetically myself, and it worked out. I think we’re in a really good spot.”
Of course, Okposo was talking about what happened with Jack Eichel last season. The Sabres co-captain hated that entire timeframe.
“That situation was very stressful on everybody," Okposo admitted. "I love Jack. He’s a good friend of mine. Obviously I had a job to do, and I’m a Sabres player. Jack and I have had so many conversations, and the person that’s ever going to be privy to those is Jack. He knows I care about him and will do anything to help him.
“It was such a difficult situation, because for whatever reason, the CBA [collective bargaining agreement] was written to where the teams had control of the final medical [decisions]. As a person, you’re not going to let anybody tell you what to do with your body. So it was a rock and a hard place, and I think agent Pat Brisson came in and did a great job of navigating the whole situation. Him and Kevyn [Adams] worked really closely to get that done in an amicable way, and I’m so happy that Jack ended up getting the surgery and now he’s healthy.”
Once it was decided that Eichel was done in Buffalo, he was never around the team anymore.
“I think for the team and how it affected us, Kevyn came in and was honest with what was going on right off the bat," Okposo said of the situation. "In the locker room, it didn’t really affect us too much. Jack wasn’t around, which sucked, but we were just focused on playing”
The podcast also went back to the very serious and life-threatening ordeal Okposo went through in March of 2017, where the winger wound up in the NeuroSurgical ICU of Buffalo General Hospital.
“That one changed my life for the better, but it was pretty scary," Okposo admitted. "I was at a rehab skate and we were doing a battle drill, and I got hit and my head hit the boards. It was nothing crazy, but my head hit the glass sideways. I remember coming off the ice and I grabbed a shake, and I hadn’t had one of those shakes since college. Something happened in my brain where it just completely switched how I was thinking and processing. So I went into this mode where I need to fix everything. I need to fix Buffalo, I need to fix the Sabres, I need to fix every relationship in my life, and I couldn’t stop.”
Things didn’t end there for Okposo, however.
“I couldn’t sleep, so I was manic and didn’t sleep for six days. I essentially lost my mind," he said. "I ended up in an ambulance, I called Mark Lindsay (a world-renowned chiropractor and soft tissue specialist), and that’s how I got fixed.
"I ended up taking all these different types of drugs to just calm me down - anti-psychotics, anti-suppressants. I had never had any sort of mental health issues in my life, and that was my first bout with paranoia, anxiety. So fast-forward six weeks, and I’m still on three different drugs. I knew something was still messed up in my neck, so I called 'Linds' and told him I needed him.
"I got into a helicopter for Kingston, and when we get there, after imaging, he goes in my mouth and my eyes roll back in my head. When I was in the hospital, I had had seizures. He said, 'If I take my hand off, you’re going to have a seizure again.' So he treats me for 90 minutes and finally gets the adjustment that he wants. I start bawling, and that was the watershed moment. I slept for 12 hours, and it was the first time I had slept for more than four hours in eight weeks.”
As the Sabres' team leader, Okposo draws from this experience and he really cares. He has said this before, but it’s worth repeating:
“Now in the locker room, I know it’s super taboo to talk about mental health, but **** that. In the room, I’m telling guys if somebody is having a bad day, I’m going over there and I’m asking how they’re doing. Just as long as you know that you’re in a safe space where you can be able to do that is so important. That’s something I’m trying to change from the old school ways.”
They also discussed this year’s Sabres team on the podcast. We just got a one-week look at the Sabres' prospects, and we saw many of them get better last season. As far as guys that could blossom this year, Okposo sees the potential for a few guys to break out of their shells.
“JJ Peterka and Jack Quinn. Those are the two can’t-miss prospects in Rochester," Okposo said. "But if you’re looking for an under-the-radar guy, I’d go with Mattias Samuelsson. This guy’s a unit. His old man played in the NHL for 14 years, and he just plays hard.
Okposo acknowledges the team has so many young guys in the system that haven't reached their full potential yet, and they may not do so for a little while yet. That’s OK, though, because he knows they will grow at their own pace, and they have a good environment to do that now.
"You’ve got Casey Mittelstadt up front, you’ve got 'Cuzy' [Dylan Cozens], and [Tage] Thompson scored 38 last year. That’s not a fluke. He was dominant, and the best part about it is all these guys are such good kids," Okposo said. "We sit in the locker room and for an hour, it’s like college and it’s so much fun.
“On the back end, you’ve got [Rasmus] Dahlin and [Owen] Power. Dahlin is only 22-years-old, and you need to learn how to be efficient at defense. I think that’s something that Dahlin is getting a lot better at, and he’s only going to continue to grow. He’s so driven that he wants to be the best. Owen just got his feet wet last year, and he’s so heady and he’s super cerebral out there. He shouldn’t be doing these things at 19-years-old. [Henri] Jokiharju is really solid and really under the radar.”
Okposo also talked about how head coach Don Granato wants players to be fearless and attack on this roster.
If you have some time, this episode is very much worth a listen. It's available in the player below: