There was one notable absence when the Buffalo Sabres took the ice for practice at KeyBank Center on Monday morning, although if all goes well the absence will be short-lived. Kyle Okposo felt under the weather and missed practice but the team is hopeful that he'll be ready when they play host to the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday night.
"He was not feeling well last night and just had to stay at home today," Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. "We hope he recovers and does well and can play tomorrow."
If Okposo does play on Tuesday, expect to see him in a new role playing on the right wing with Evander Kane and Jack Eichel. That was the case at practice on Sunday, when he and Sam Reinhart swapped lines with Reinhart moving alongside William Carrier and Ryan O'Reilly.
While Reinhart has plenty of experience playing with O'Reilly from last season, the combination of Okposo and Eichel is relatively new. They've played on the same power-play unit since Eichel returned from injury on Nov. 29, but have not yet been linemates. Still, Eichel watched Okposo for 21 games while he nursed his high-ankle sprain and that alone was enough to learn about his new teammate's skill set.
"Obviously when I was hurt I got to watch him a lot and learned a lot about how he plays," Eichel said. "I think he's probably one of the most underrated players in our league, just how good he is with the puck, without the puck, in all areas of the game. He's strong on it, he's very skilled, and he can make passes."
There's little question that, to this point, the Sabres have gotten what they paid for when they signed Okposo to a seven-year deal on the first day of free agency in July. Okposo leads the Sabres with nine goals and 18 points through 26 games.
Kane talked about playing basketball with Okposo recently and said one of the things he's learned about his new teammate is how much of a "well-rounded" athlete Okposo is. It makes sense; much like a basketball player uses his body to box out for rebounds, Okposo uses his body to maintain possession while engaging with defenders along the boards and low in the offensive zone.
"You know what, he was one of the better players obviously on the Islanders and I've played against him for a lot of years," Kane said. "Really he's kind of the same players he's always been. He has great puck skills, he works hard, he's strong on the puck and he's got a great shot obviously and likes to use it."
In the dressing room, meanwhile, Okposo is already a respected leader on a young team. When O'Reilly and fellow alternate captain Josh Gorges have missed games this season, it's been Okposo who's filled in and worn an "A."
"He's a leader," Eichel said. "He's played a lot of hockey in the league and he's been a part of a lot of different teams so he brings good experience as a veteran. He's somebody who someone like myself, who's still young, can learn a lot from."
Kulikov being eased back into the lineup
Dmitry Kulikov skated 18:23 in his return to the lineup from a lower-back injury in Friday, but Bylsma said it will take some time before the defenseman resumes is complete role with the Sabres. You can hear more from Bylsma and hear from Kulikov himself on his return below in Monday's Sabres in :90.
Video: Sabres in :90 (12/12/16)
An eye on the standings
While he wouldn't go so far as to say his team was "obsessed" with watching the standings in the Eastern Conference, Bylsma admitted on Monday that it's something the Sabres pay close attention to throughout the season. The Sabres are six points out of third place in the Atlantic Division with two games in hand.
"They're up in our room in a prominent place on purpose so that we do look at them," Bylsma said. "We have a good understanding and a good idea of where we're at in the standings right now. I don't know if we're obsessed about it, but I want it to be something that's prominent for our players."
In what's shaping up to be a good season for the East, the Sabres are currently the only team below .500 in the entire conference (the West, on the other hand, has five sub-.500 teams). They can pull above .500 with a win over Los Angeles on Tuesday, but it will take a winning streak to really make a dent in the standings.
Bylsma pointed to the Sabres' six remaining games before their holiday break, five of which are against Eastern Conference opponents, as an opportunity to make that dent. After the break, they play Detroit on the road prior to a home-and-home set with Boston, which currently holds the third spot in the Atlantic Division.
"It's something we're going to have to do and looking to do," Bylsma said. "We have six games before the break and a good opportunity for us to really focus in on these six games starting with L.A. tomorrow."
Lines at practice
48 William Carrier - 90 Ryan O'Reilly - 23 Sam Reinhart
9 Evander Kane - 15 Jack Eichel - 26 Matt Moulson
82 Marcus Foligno - 22 Johan Larsson - 12 Brian Gionta
44 Nicolas Deslauriers - 27 Derek Grant - 28 Zemgus Girgensons
29 Jake McCabe - 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
77 Dmitry Kulikov - 6 Cody Franson
4 Josh Gorges - 41 Justin Falk
40 Robin Lehner
31 Anders Nilsson