Over the last two years, Kyle Okposo has been one of the scapegoats for the Buffalo Sabres. He hasn’t lived up to that seven-year, $42 million contract he signed in the summer of 2016.
The 31-year-old forward had a solid first year in Buffalo, but after his concussion scare at the end of that season, he hasn’t been the same player. He has four years remaining on his contract at that $6 million cap hit. At this point, he’ll likely never live up to that contract. However, that doesn’t mean he can’t be a useful player on the roster moving forward.
Shift to Defensive Role
In the first part of last season, Okposo was given the opportunity to start the season with Jack Eichel. He also saw time in a scoring line role with Casey Mittelstadt and Conor Sheary. After he continued to struggle to find offensive consistency, his role was changed in the second half of the season. His deployment drastically changed from a 67% average offensive zone start rate in his first 39 games to 42% in his final 39.
He was moved into more a defensive role, playing with Johan Larsson and Zemgus Girgensons primarily. That trio was one of the better lines that were put together last season in reducing scoring chances against. According to Natural Stat Trick, they had a 66.67 GF% and 1.89 xGA/60 at 5 on 5.
Before diving more into his defensive numbers, one interesting thing of note was how his offensive production remained the same even though his usage changed into a more defensive deployment. In the first 39 games of the season at 5 on 5, he scored 1.63 points per 60. The final 39 games in heavier defensive zone deployment he scored 1.61 points per 60 minutes. Overall is offensive impacts at 5 on 5 according to Evolving Hockey’s RAPM model was actually one of the worst among all forwards in the league, but it was interesting to see his production level remain the same in a usage change.
Digging through some numbers on Okposo, I wanted to see how he was deployed at 5 on 5 beyond the “top-level” numbers. My thought going into this was that Okposo was utilized more in situations where his team was leading at 5 on 5 and he was good in those situations. Therefore, I looked into the score effects of forwards in situations when the Sabres were leading to see if Okposo stood out.
For those that are unaware of how score effects work in analytics for hockey, I’ll give you a quick rundown. The theory is that teams that are leading will take their foot off the gas offensively and go into a defensive shell to protect their lead. The team that is trailing will take more risks offensively and carry the majority of the play. That’s why in games where the score has a large discrepancy it’s wise to look at score-adjusted metrics. The losing team’s analytical data points (Corsi, Fenwick, xG, etc.) can look better because they were down early in the game by a large score and their opponent went into a defensive structure.
If you want a more in-depth look, Eric Tulsky (currently of the Carolina Hurricanes) wrote a thorough piece back in 2012 for Broad Street Hockey that you can read here. Micah McCurdy also expanded on score effects in this piece for Hockey Graphs a few years ago.
Alright, back to Okposo.
This may come as a shock to you, but the Sabres didn’t play a lot with the lead last season. In fact, according to Natural Stat Trick, they were the ninth-lowest in time played while leading at 5 on 5.
I wanted to get an idea of how much of Okposo’s ice time at 5 on 5 were during situations when the Sabres were leading and compare it to the other forwards on the roster to play over 300 minutes at even strength.
The chart above using data from Evolving Hockey indicates that Okposo was actually in the middle of the pack among all forwards on the roster at 28.7% of his time on the ice were when his club was in the lead. While the percentage was lower than I expected relative to his teammates, what I uncovered next confirmed my theory on Okposo being a solid defensive forward for the Sabres when they were protecting a lead.
Looking into goal share (GF%) at even strength while leading, Okposo graded out as one of the best forwards on the roster as you’ll see in the chart below.
The veteran forward also was one of the better players last season in expected goals against per 60 when leading.
Overall, Okposo graded out as one of the better defensive forwards on the team last season. Evolving Hockey’s standard on-ice metrics are scored adjusted to account for situations like I explained above and he ended the season tied for second in xGA/60 among all forwards on the team to play at least 300 minutes. In their RAPM data that accounts for a variety of factors beyond the standard metrics, he ranked fourth among all forwards on the Sabres in xGA/60.
The Minnesota-born forward isn’t going to be one of the top shut down forwards around the NHL, but he can fill the role for the Sabres with how their roster is currently constructed. Having him play on a fourth-line role with Johan Larsson and another forward next season makes the most sense for Okposo. He won’t be relied upon to be an important offensive producer and transition into more of a depth forward at this point in his career.
Although he carries a contract that the Sabres would like to get out of, he can still play at a slightly above replacement level. Having a player on your fourth line that can score around 15 goals and 30 points isn’t a bad situation.
While the cap hit with Okposo will always be the eye-sore in Buffalo, he’s still a player that can fill a role on a team NHL team.