'An unbelievable person': Sabres bid emotional farewell to Kyle Okposo in trade


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Kevyn Adams paused, cleared his throat and took a swig from a plastic water bottle as the Buffalo Sabres' general manager stood at a lectern Friday afternoon in KeyBank Center.

"Sorry, let me take a sec here," Adams said, then pausing briefly again to collect his thoughts.

The Sabres' place in the Eastern Conference standings, nine points out of a wild-card spot with 18 games remaining, forced Adams to trade away two players whom he envisioned would help Buffalo snap a playoff drought that dates to 2011.

Defenseman Erik Johnson, who signed a one-year contract with the Sabres in July, left ahead of the NHL's trade deadline Friday in a move to the Philadelphia Flyers.

The deal that elicited an emotional response, though, was the one involving Adams' captain, Kyle Okposo, the 35-year-old who is universally beloved by players and staff. Okposo joined former teammates Sam Reinhart and Brandon Montour with the defending Eastern Conference champion Florida Panthers.

"Kyle Okposo, he’s just, as you guys know, an unbelievable person," Adams continued, teary-eyed as he tried to summarize the impact Okposo had on and off the ice during his eight seasons in Buffalo. "I have a lot of respect for people that are selfless in this game and what he’s given to this organization, his heart and soul.

"I think back on some struggles that he’s had in his own time and the struggles that we’ve been through together since I’ve been general manager and the care that he had. That’s a unique relationship, so I want to thank him. Danielle, his kids, these are amazing people. Maybe I can talk better if I just focus on hockey and not the personal side."

Neither Johnson nor Okposo were traded to improve the Sabres' roster now or next season. With the club out of the playoff picture weeks before the deadline, Adams approached his pending unrestricted free agents to communicate his plans and hear their thoughts on how their goals for the rest of the season.

Adams preferred to keep those conversations quiet. Okposo had his eye on Florida, though. And, once the Panthers made an offer, the Sabres accepted as a gesture to put their departing captain in a position to appear in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in 2016 and compete for hockey's ultimate prize.

“It’s been an extremely hectic day, but at the end of the day, I’m really looking forward to joining a team that has been just phenomenal from the drop of the puck this year," Okposo said during an interview with ESPN. "I’m looking forward to trying and go be a piece. They really have a legitimate shot to win and obviously, anything can happen in the postseason, but I’m just over the moon to be joining the team.”

In return for Okposo, the Sabres acquired defenseman Calle Sjalin and a conditional seventh-round draft pick in 2024 that becomes a fifth-rounder if the Panthers win the Stanley Cup.

Sjalin, 24, has a left-handed shot and has spent the past two seasons with the Charlotte Checkers of the American Hockey League. He hasn't played a game since late January. For Johnson, the Sabres added a fourth-round draft pick in 2024. They have seven selections in the draft, including two in the fourth round.

Adams received phone calls from general managers interested in wingers Zemgus Girgensons and Victor Olofsson, but neither pending unrestricted free agents was traded. The Sabres would have preferred to keep their roster in tact following the trade Wednesday that sent center Casey Mittelstadt to the Colorado Avalanche for defenseman Bowen Byram, who scored during his debut Thursday in Nashville.

However, as a Stanley Cup-winning center with 10 years in the NHL, Adams thought that Okposo, in particular, earned the right to determine where he could play for the remainder of the season. It may be Okposo's final season and his last opportunity to win.

Motivated to finally push the Sabres into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Okposo and Girgensons returned to Buffalo on nearly identical one-year contracts. The roster was expected to be strong enough to break through in the Atlantic Division. They were steady contributors in fourth-line roles as the Sabres' playoff chances gradually faded due to inconsistent performances.

"I’ll keep the conversation private, but he made it very clear to me what he was hoping to do and where he was hoping to go at the deadline and fortunately we were able to make it happen," said Adams. "I wish him the best. I know he’ll be missed, but I think he’s got an amazing opportunity in front of him."

Once the 2022-23 season ended, Okposo needed only a few weeks to decide that he would return for his 17th campaign in the NHL. He wished to leave the Sabres better than he found them in 2016 when he arrived on a seven-year contract to join forces with a core of players that was led by Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart. Now 35 years old, Okposo was on a mission to play better than he did last season when his production dropped from 21 goals to 11.

Okposo was successful in improving his performance, playing well during a disappointing season for the Sabres. He helped in the top- and bottom-six, produced in a net-front position on the power play and, according to teammates, set a standard in practice with an unflappable work ethic. This season, he's totaled 12 goals, one more than his total from last season, and proved that he is still an effective bottom-six winger who can help a playoff team.

Okposo also appeared in his 1,000th game, a significant accomplishment given the uncertainty future he faced in 2017 because of a concussion that led to his hospitalization at Buffalo General’s neurosurgical intensive care unit. He prolonged his career by evolving his on-ice approach to adapt to a checking-line role and emerged as the leader of the Sabres during a 2021-22 season in which Eichel, their former captain, was traded to the Vegas Golden Knights.

Adams informally approached Okposo about the captaincy in March 2022 while the Sabres were in Ontario preparing to play the Toronto Maple Leafs in the outdoor Heritage Classic at Hamilton's Tim Hortons Field. The club officially announced Okposo as captain seven months later, though he had been the heartbeat of the group long before then.

Now, Okposo will join multiple former teammates – Reinhart, Brandon Montour and Evan Rodrigues – in the Panthers' quest to reach the Stanley Cup Final for a second consecutive season. They led the NHL with 90 points in 64 games entering Friday.

"It was a difficult (conversation), to be honest," Okposo said on ESPN when asked about the impact on his family. "My older three got out of school early so everybody was home at 11:30, and they walked in the door and the first question they asked was, ‘Have you been traded?’ I told them that I got traded and they all kind of guessed where I was going and one of them guessed Florida.

"My older two were definitely teary-eyed, so that’s a hard thing – there is a lot of emotion because we’ve been in Buffalo for eight years, and this is home and this is all my kids know. So, there is definitely mixed emotions for them and they’re coming to the realization that Dad is going to be gone for a while (and) we might not be in Buffalo forever."

Johnson did not stabilize the Sabres' third defense pair the way that Adams had hoped. In Johnson's 50 games, he produced three goals with zero assists with a minus-5 rating. He averaged only 13:48 of ice time, the lowest mark of his 16-year NHL career, and did not perform up to expectations at 5-on-5. The right-shot defenseman bolstered the club's penalty kill, but had regressed since the All-Star break.

Johnson was a scratch for the Sabres' five games leading into the All-Star break while Adams tried to find a contender interested in the recent Stanley Cup champion. Johnson sat on the bench for the second and third periods of his final game with Buffalo, skating only 3:31 in a 3-2 loss to the Panthers last week.

While memories of Johnson's on-ice impact will fade over time, the wisdom, habits and professionalism that he passed on to Sabres teammates, particularly their young defensemen, will be felt long after he is gone. Connor Clifton, 28, is now the oldest defenseman on Buffalo's roster, ahead of Jacob Bryson (26), Henri Jokiharju (24), Rasmus Dahlin (23), Mattias Samuelsson (23), Bowen Byram (22), Ryan Johnson (22) and Owen Power (21).

Retaining Girgensons ensured that Buffalo will have an important fourth-line winger for the final 18 games. He has seven goals and nine points in 46 games, but has not experienced the playoffs during his 10 NHL seasons. Girgensons, 30, has appeared in 671 games, 11th-most in franchise history, and produced 88 goals with 183 points.
While Girgensons has not produced to match the expectations created by his selection 14th overall at the 2012 draft, he is universally respected by teammates, multiple management teams and the six head coaches that Buffalo has employed across his 10 seasons.

"Zemgus is so important within the fabric of this team, he’s been here since the day he was drafted," said Adams. "It’s a different situation a little bit. I think Zemgus has plenty of years ahead of him and I’ve made it clear to him that that’s something that we’re going to talk about. We wanted to get through the trade deadline and our own situation. But I did have conversations with teams and it just had to make sense for us, and Zemgus, and where we got to today was there wasn't the right deal to make.

"And I'm really glad we're keeping him because he's just, there's something special about him. And I think it's important here down the stretch, too that he's in that locker room."

The losses of Okposo and Johnson create a leadership void that Buffalo must fill from within. Rasmus Dahlin has represented the Sabres as an alternate captain the past two years. Alex Tuch was an alternate captain earlier this season while Girgensons missed time because of an injury. Dahlin and Tuch are candidates to assume Okposo's role as the team's captain. Dylan Cozens and Tage Thompson are also recognized as important voices in the dressing room.

On the ice, Buffalo must find a way to replace an important depth forward after it traded its leading scorer, Casey Mittelstadt, to the Colorado Avalanche for Byram. The Sabres acquired Eric Robinson from the Columbus Blue Jackets earlier this season, Lukas Rousek may received an extended look in that role and Tyson Jost was summoned from the Rochester Americans to be a Swiss Army knife in the bottom-six.

Losing their captain is the latest setback during a season in which the Sabres took a step back. Their young core will have to press on with him, beginning Saturday in KeyBank Center with a game against the Edmonton Oilers.

"I think you look at the age, the experience of those players when Kyle Okposo got the ‘C’ on his chest, [compared to] where they are now, there’s a big difference," said Adams. "I mean, Rasmus Dahlin has elevated in every single way – on the ice, off the ice, physically, just his voice, his confidence. Yeah, so Dylan Cozens another example. ... So it’s their time, that’s it."