Tage Thompson and Kyle Okposo are the Biggest Surprises of 2021-22 Season.

There have been a lot of surprises this season, even though the Sabres will miss the playoffs once again, a strong finish has given us all hope, and a lot to look forward to next season. Several players have seen their careers revived, or boosted under Don Granato. These players include: Tage Thompson, Jeff Skinner, Rasmus Dahlin, Kyle Okposo, Victor Olafsson, and to a lesser extent Casey Mittelstadt. In Mittelstadt's case, he hasn't torn it up the way Tage Thompson has, and the injuries this season have played a role in that, he has however become relevant again.

We traded away a superstar center, and little did we know, we would end up with a breakout performance in Tage Thompson, and as a centerman, who is flirting with 40 goals this year. When people talk about future captains, this is a guy that rarely gets in the discussion, but he has to be at least considered for a letter in the future. He reminds a little bit of a younger, taller, Jeff Carter. Thompson, just like Carter, is a goal scoring centerman with size, and decent two way ability, and the two-way game still has much more of a ceiling to tap into.

It's pretty obvious that he has put the work in the offseason with getting stronger, and that's a great example to set with his teammates, and the young guys. There's going to be internal competition for the Sabres center position behind Thompson with Mittelstadt, Peyton Krebs, and Dylan Cozens. Every game, one of those guys will need to play on the wing, which is not a bad thing. But, what it's really about, is being put in the prime positions and getting the minutes. Tage Thompson is also a guy who has been through a lot of adversity in his career.

He's had a history of injuries, he didn't get off to a good start in Buffalo, and he was apart of the Ryan O'Reilly trade which did not have a favorable look for Sabres fans at the time. In fact, it looked quite lopsided. Now it's a trade that quite honestly works out for both sides. There's a lot of people who wrote Thompson off for quite some time, and some would have been ok with exposing him to the Seattle Kraken.

I'm not so much surprised that Thompson ended up being a good player, the talent was always there, but I would have been happy with 20 goal production. Thompson has nearly doubled that and then some, and he's exceeded what many fans thought his ceiling could be. Most importantly, he did it as a centerman, a position that Don Granato entrusted him with, despite not playing center for several years. For the other young centers, and Casey Mittelstadt, Thompson's breakout and the work he put in is important for them to see, and it's a way to lead by example. The guys need to see first hand what it takes to be successful in the NHL.

Next season, it will be Mittelstadt, Krebs, and Cozens that could be poised to breakout, and for the team to make the postseason, they're going to need one of those guys to do so. For me, it's Casey Mittelstadt that has the most to prove. He was one of the Sabres best players in camp last summer. He could have had a breakout year that we've all been waiting for. Mittelstadt is a relevant player on this sure, but he's also a guy that i'm sorry to say we need to see more from. Patience is a virtue, and I have plenty of faith in Mittelstadt because I've seen situations like this before in the NHL.

Players like Olli Jokinen, and former Sabres Tim Connolly and Sam Reinhart, sometimes it takes a while to see a players potential, but they will get there. I think if Mittelstadt puts the work in, under Don Granato, he could easily take a step next season, and I hope he can do it, because I like the idea of having four guys that can be really solid centerman. It's not a position that grows on trees, and it's a position that looked really bleak to start the year. Sabre fans should not forget that at all. That's why we had to tank to begin with, because top six franchise centers are not easy to find, and often they need to be drafted and developed.

We fell in love with the idea of having elite talent down the middle. First we ended up with Sam Reinhart, and we kept him on the right wing for years because everyone was convinced he couldn't play the position. Then Don Granato came in and challenged him to be a center. Then of course there was Eichel, who is a great player that ended up apart of a disastrous marriage between player and team.

At the start of the season, we had a big question at the center position with Mittelstadt and Cozens. Now we have too many, who knows, we might even add more in the draft? I mean, can you ever really have enough of these guys?

One of things that I think that a lot of people don't realize, and easily forget, is that Jason Botterill who drafted and acquired a lot of these players such as Cozens, Thompson, Mittelstadt, Dahlin (although that was a can't miss) Jokiharju, and Sammuelson, although Adams has added to it with guys who he has drafted such as Jack Quinn, J.J Peterka, and Owen Power, as well as trading for Alex Tuch, and Peyton Krebs.

The problem however was player development, and having the right coach to develop them, as well as the emphasis on team chemistry and culture. It appears Kevyn Adams made the right call with Don Granato. Player development and culture is something that has been emphasized on both the Bills and Sabres sides of the Pegula sports empire. One thing I often wonder about however is how did Granato ever end up on Ralph Kreuger's coaching staff, because everything he seems to preach is the exact opposite of Kreuger.

Team Chemistry matters as does the culture. There may be some critics of Sean McDermott of the Bills, it's still was no easy task to turn around the culture of the organization. Don Granato has been faced with a similar task.

This is a team that cares about one another, and that's been sorely lacking since Ryan Miller got ran over by Milan Lucic. This team doesn't tons of tough guys and gritty players, but they do have more guys who play with an edge, including a guy like Cozens who is starting to play with an edge, and more importantly they play like they give a s***.
The culture in the room has changed this season, drastically. There is one man who exemplifies everything about that culture. This one man represents everything it should mean to be a Sabre.

That man is Kyle Okposo.

I don't want Zemgus Girgensons to go unrecognized either, and I really truly hope that fans don't let him go unrecognized, because he has been here the longest, and he's had to tough out this nonsense. You have to respect everything he has put up with, and how hard he plays the game. He truly is worthy of the letter he wears as a lead by example type.

Kyle Okposo is the guy everyone in the locker room looks towards for leadership, and even when Jack Eichel was here, this was the case. There's a lot of reasons why the Eichel era failed, and poor culture and leadership contributed to that, and Eichel himself also contributed to that. We learned a valuable lesson as fans however. That lesson is never hand a captaincy of a hockey team away for free because of what you think they can be. It's not just about the player on the ice, but about the character as well, and being a quality teammate.

Okposo is easily the Sabres comeback player of the year, although Jeff Skinner has one heck of an argument after being buried by Ralph Kreuger. Okposo is a guy who has dealt with worlds of adversity. He was a player who has the second most sought after free agent in his class after Steven Stamkos, and was the Sabres first big unrestricted free agent of the Eichel era. He had a 20 goal pace in his first season, but then declined the following year, and then in the following years, he fell of a cliff. But, he didn't just stop at falling off a cliff, he fell off a cliff, and then landed in a puddle of quicksand, sinking into the ground.

He had 11 goals and 32 points in 87 games, averaging 12-13 minutes over two years prior to this season, and battled numerous injuries including concussions. He's battled back through resilience and perseverance, and has been boosted by Granato giving him the most ice time he's seen in two years. He's also earned some time on the penalty kill.

Okposo's best playing days are probably behind him, but he still offers plenty of value to the organization, even if it's in a third line role, a role he plays very well. While if I were a betting man, I would put my money on Alex Tuch to one day wear the "C" for the Sabres, nobody deserves it more than Kyle Okposo, and heading into his final season next year.

Okposo has battled back into relevance this year and is a player that many guys in the room look up to as a leader, and it has been a pleasant surprise to see. I hope fans also appreciate how hard he has worked to battle back, and how he represents the Buffalo Sabres organization.

Who is your biggest suprise of 2021-22 season?

Is it Thompson? Okposo, or even Skinner?

This is a FanPost written by a member of the community. It does not necessarily express the views or opinions of Die By The Blade.