We'll open this practice report with a trivia question: Which current player on the Buffalo Sabres joined the team after signing a seven-year contract, assumed a leadership position and wore an "A" on their jersey almost immediately and made their first All-Star team during their first season in Buffalo?
If you guessed Ryan O'Reilly, you're correct. If you guessed Kyle Okposo, you're also correct. Such are the parallels between the first seasons of O'Reilly, the Sabres' All-Star last season, and Okposo, who was named an All-Star for the first time on Tuesday.
When O'Reilly joined the Sabres a season ago, he was named an alternate captain out of training camp. By the time he was announced as an All-Star in January, Dan Bylsma referred to him as the team's "heart and soul." He'd already become as well known for his practice habits, which had spread to his teammates, as he was for his in-game abilities.
It's interesting, then, how intrigued O'Reilly has been in getting to watch Okposo work over the past four months.
"It's interesting to see the off-ice habits," O'Reilly said. "You [play against him] and see him last year, seeing how hard he works and the way he can create, the way he can score, you know you see that stuff. But get to know him better and getting to play with him, you see the way he takes care of himself away from the rink. He's always working on his game. He's always in the gym, he's shooting pucks, he's doing stick-handling stuff, he's always working on his game and it's cool to see how guys get the way they are."
O'Reilly's description of Okposo almost exactly matches the description from Matt Moulson, Okposo's teammate for five seasons in New York and a godfather to Okposo's daughter.
"I think he's a guy that comes to the rink every day and works at what he needs to work on, whether its workouts, shooting pucks, doing different things on the ice," Moulson said. "He's a guy that takes his job very seriously and I think you can see that no matter the circumstance, if he's tired or what not, he comes to work every day."
The work off the ice has translated thus far, as Okposo has been every bit the consistent presence on the ice that the Sabres could have hoped for when they signed him this summer. He leads the team outright with 12 goals and is tied with Rasmus Ristolainen and Sam Reinhart for the team lead with 27 points.
In games where either O'Reilly or defenseman Josh Gorges have been absent - of which there have quite a few this season - Okposo has assumed alternate captain duties, a testament to the impression he's already made on his coach.
"He's a true professional," Bylsma said. "You do a little bit of homework on Kyle and you know what kind of player he is but, both on and off the ice, his work ethic and his demeanor, he's been a big leader for our group and our team in that regard.
"It's no surprise to what you see on the ice from him because of how hard he works off the ice."
Now, for the first time in a 10-year career, that hard work has earned him a spot alongside the League's best in Los Angeles later this month.
"It's awesome for him," O'Reilly said. "All year he's been probably our most consistent player. Night in and night out, the way he competes and the way's he been producing, it's nice to see him get that. It's definitely well deserved."
Grant claimed on waivers
Forward Derek Grant was claimed on waivers by the Nashville Predators on Wednesday. He averaged 10:12 of ice time for the Sabres and was a consistent presence on the penalty kill, but he did not score a goal in 35 games.
Grant being claimed does take away a potential goal scorer from Rochester, but Bylsma said the move was made with Cal O'Reilly in mind as a potential fill-in at the center position if the need ever arises. As it stands, the Sabres have O'Reilly, Reinhart, Jack Eichel and Zemgus Girgensons down the middle.
"Obviously we knew there was a possibility [of Grant being claimed]," Bylsma said. "Hopefully it's an opportunity for Derek in Nashville."
Lehner will not travel to Tampa Bay; Ennis is getting closer
Robin Lehner, who missed the game on Tuesday with the flu, was not expected to travel with the Sabres for their upcoming two-game road trip, according to Bylsma. Anders Nilsson and Linus Ullmark will be the two goalies on the trip, which will see the Sabres play back-to-back games in Tampa Bay and Carolina on Thursday and Friday.
Ullmark has not yet played an NHL game this season, but he's played 28 games for Rochester en route to being named an All-Star in the AHL. Brian Duff caught up with Ullmark in Wednesday's Sabres in :90, which you can find below.
Video: Sabres in :90 (1/11/17)
Bylsma said that Tyler Ennis, meanwhile, will not play in Tampa Bay but did not rule out a return to the lineup in Carolina on Friday. Ennis has missed 28 games since undergoing groin surgery on Nov. 10