Before we get into the meat and potatoes here, let’s get one thing straight - the 2016 NHL free agent class was a train wreck. Forwards in their late-twenties made out like bandits, and the Buffalo Sabres’ signing of Kyle Okposo was one of the headliners on the list of bad decisions made on July 1 that year. With a seven-year, $6 million AAV deal which runs through the 2022-23 season, on paper, his contract (in comparison to his on-ice production), is an albatross.
Setting Tim Murray’s reckless free-agent financial decisions aside for a moment, in a vacuum, Okposo has turned into a very reliable impact player. If his salary were perhaps half of its current value, fans in Buffalo would probably adore him, and the contributions he’s made this season.
When he was brought in, the obvious intent was for him to continue to post strong offensive numbers, similar to the way he did with the New York Islanders. Obviously, that didn’t pan out, and his impacts in an offensive role were pretty abysmal over the course of his first few seasons in Western New York.
During the second-half of the 2018-19 campaign however, Phil Housley started playing him in a more defensive role, and the numbers looked pretty solid in a relatively small sample (Chad DeDominicis actually dove into said sample this summer). Ralph Krueger doubled-down, and continued to build on that approach this season, and Okposo has proven himself to be an outstanding presence alongside Johan Larsson on the Sabres’ de-facto fourth line.
While his skating started to deteriorate as he hit his 30’s, his ability as a strong, physical possession forward remained steady. For that reason, it’s no surprise to see him excel in a revised role that is more suitable for his current skill set. Simply put, his aggressive style and physicality while maintaining puck possession has been excellent fit for a line that is utilized, almost exclusively, to suppress danger versus their opposition’s top offensive trios.
This trend is further evidenced by his zone-deployment. Similar to how the Larsson line was used under Housley, Okposo has started nearly 66-percent of his starts in the defensive zone during the 2019-20 campaign. When paired with the aforementioned danger-suppression style approach, his standing as the team’s current expected-goal differential leader is quite impressive.
From an adjusted standpoint, he currently carries a relative xG of 4.94-percent, which represents a whopping 9.21-percent improvement from a year ago (where he started in the offensive zone around 48-percent of the time, amounting to a 14-percent delta, year-over-year). His relative Corsi of 1.68 is the highest it’s been since his time as an Islander, and is another commendation of how effectively he’s helped smother opposing offenses in a heavy defensive role. With Okposo on the ice, high-danger chances-against have been virtually non-existent (it’s important to note that Larsson plays a huge role in this as well).
Speaking of Larsson (whose name has made it’s way around the trade rumor mill as of late), some have wondered how much of Okposo’s success is predicated on having the Swedish workhorse as his primary centerman. That’s a fair question, especially if the Sabres don’t plan to re-sign Larsson this summer (though they really should).
Due to the fact that they’ve essentially spent the entire year together, it’s tough to say. In a very small (and scattered) 88-minute sample size away from one another, their respective Corsi and xG metrics have suffered pretty equally, but again, it’s way too small of an example from which to draw any sort of conclusion. The true test will come if and when Okposo is asked to play the same role with a new pivot in 2020-21.
Recently, Okposo’s individual impact has translated to tangible results in his base stats, posting nine points in his last 12 games. This production has come immediately following a cold spell of sorts where he registered a mere four points in 24 contests. Overall, with 17 points in 45 games, he’s on pace to essentially match his scoring production from a year ago in a completely revised role (which, as explained above, has helped contribute toward the Sabres becoming a much improved defensive team).
Looking at the business side of things, despite the coaching staff finding a way to make him a very useful asset in the bottom-six, if the opportunity presents itself, Buffalo should obviously still rid themselves of his contract. That scenario seems unlikely unless the Sabres part with a significant asset along with Okposo (which they absolutely should not do), so for now, both the team and player are doing what’s best on the ice to help maximize value from what is still a pretty ugly contract.
For that, the current regime does deserve some credit. While Kreuger hasn’t made lemonade with all of the lemons he’s been handed (of which there have been more than a few), he’s done well in optimizing this particular asset. Hopefully the 31-year-old can stay healthy (something he’s struggled to do) and continue to excel in his role.
RAPM charts courtesy of Evolving Hockey
Corsi, Expected-Goals, and TOI metrics courtesy of Natural Stat Trick
Shot Heatmap courtesy of Hockeyviz