Monday, July 4, 2016

It wasn't "The Big Fish" but landing Kyle Okposo is big for Buffalo

Reprinted with permission from

Tampa Bay Lightning forward Steven Stamkos did the right thing by agreeing to an 8 yr. extension with the club. A premier free agent of his caliber doesn't hit the market all that often and he did listen to a what a few teams, including the Buffalo Sabres, had to offer but in the end Tampa has all the elements he was looking for.

With the Stamkos Sweepstakes over all eyes turned toward the opening of free agency at 12-Noon yesterday and teams turned their attention to the next tier of unrestricted free agents. For Buffalo that would have been NY Islanders winger Kyle Okposo.

Many considered Okposo the best of a solid, yet unspectacular (in light of Stamkos) group of UFA's hitting the market and surprisingly it only took a 15-minute phone call sell him on Buffalo. At the post-FA news conference Sabres GM Tim Murray said landing the free agent wasn't so much about selling the city of Buffalo, Murray had to "sell him on the organization" and the direction the team is headed. For those who'd been spitting on Buffalo calling it "the armpit of America" it might come as a shock that there are many, many players and coaches out there both past and present who like the city of Buffalo and have no qualms about planting roots there.

Murray didn't even need to do a whole lot of selling Okposo on the direction the team is headed in. At yesterday's media conference call, he was asked right off the bat what sold him on Buffalo and the Sabres. "First and foremost, I've been saying it kind of all day, is the chance to win the Stanley Cup," he told the media members, "and I think we have a lot of pieces in play that can help us achieve that goal.

"I looked at their forwards especially their top two centers with [Ryan] O'Reilly and [Jack] Eichel and those guys are only going to continue to get better, especially Jack. He's got superstar status and you definitely need that to win a Stanley Cup, I think."

Okposo left a situation in Brooklyn where he'd been through a complete rebuilding process with an Islanders that was ready to begin taking the next step by going deep into the playoffs. The 28 yr. old said that the Sabres have a "younger feel" and that he's hoping to provide a veteran presence. "I've gone through [a rebuild] before and I think [the Sabres] are at an accelerated rate," he said. "Knowing the next step to come I think we can get there quicker than the Islanders."

If Murray continues add to the core he built over the last year-and-a-half, getting to the second round of the playoffs like the Islanders did last season will come sooner rather than later. Okposo witnessed first-hand a huge year-over-year change in the Sabres. "They've definitely came a along way since last year," he said. "It was a completely different team as opposed to playing them the year before. I just remember coming out of the last game I played against them thinking 'God, these guys are a really skilled bunch and they have a lot of upside.'

"I didn't know what was about to transpire the next two months but I was thinking how good some of their young players were."

As for his familiarity with the city of Buffalo, three much-maligned players, gave rave reviews to the city itself. Okposo is close friends with former Sabre Drew Stafford who called it an "awesome place" and that "he loved it" when he lived there. Former Sabres winger Thomas Vanek "had nothing but nice things to say about the organization and the community as well. And present winger, and Okposo's former team mate with the Islanders, Matt Moulson, "had really positive things to say" about the city and the organization.

Landing Okposo his big for Buffalo as he slots into the top-six forward ranks. His 64 points and 35 assists last season would have placed him at the top of the Sabres scoring leaders in both categories. With Eichel, O'Reilly, Evander Kane and Sam Reinhart occupying four of the other five, Murray has one more slot to fill up top.

He told the gathered media yesterday that he'll be turning his attention next week to LW, Jimmy Vesey whose rights Murray traded for last month. "We have another guy we acquired this summer that we feel strongly about so the next step is next week to go and meet with him and extol the virtues of the organization and the city of Buffalo," is how Murray talked about getting Vesey to sign a contract with the Sabres.

Vesey's agent was quoted as saying he's open to anything when talking about the Sabres and Murray liked the sound of that. He talked about selling the organization and the city, but perhaps he should just bring Okposo along or just highlight some of the audio from his media conference call.

The city of Buffalo is changing for the better and there's an good feel downtown. Just ask anyone who attended the draft last week. And the Buffalo Sabres are on the rise, just ask Okposo, arguably the best free agent on the market this year and a player who chose to play for the team.

Not bad for a franchise that was recently considered the bastard child of the red-headed stepchild.


For some reason the 2016 edition of "Free Agent Frenzy" didn't seem as crazy as in year's past from a dollar perspective. Maybe some of the terms were a little bit surprising but there weren't a lot of head-scratchers when it came to dollars thrown around.

There were four players considered to be in that next tier of UFA's behind Stamkos and they all have the same, pretty reasonable cap-hit.

--Okposo, 7yrs./$42M
--28 yr. old Milan Lucic (EDM): 7yrs./$42M
--30 yr. old Loui Eriksson (VAN):  6 yrs./$36M
--32 yr. old David Backes (BOS):  5 yrs/$30M

There was a nice symmetry to this grouping and even some of the well-worn vets weren't signed to exorbitant contracts. 30 yr. old Andrew Ladd, he of two Stanley Cups with two different teams signed a 7 yr./$38.M deal with the Islanders while Troy Brouwer (30 yrs. old,) who has a Cup of his own and was coming off of a monster 2016 playoffs signed with the Calgary Flames for a very reasonable cap-hit of $4.5M over four years.

Even more reasonable were contracts for defenseman Dan Hamhuis who went to the Dallas Stars (2yrs/$7.5M total,) former Sabre Jamie McGinn (ARI, 3yrs./$10M) and Eric Staal (MIN, 3 yrs./$10.5M.)

All-in-all, this year's edition of the opening of free agency didn't have drunken sailors throwing around stupid money. That was left for the NBA.


Murray added depth on the blueline yesterday by signing veteran defenseman Justin Falk (CLB.)

Falk is a former 4th-round pick of the Minnesota Wild (110th-overall) who's seen time with the NY Rangers organization as well. The 6' 5" 215 lb. lefty just added a Calder Cup to his resume while helping lead the Lake Erie Monsters to a sweeping Cup victory over the Hershey Bears. He also won the Memorial Cup with the Spokane Chiefs in 2008.

The two-way contract for Falk is for one year that will pay him $650K at the NHL-level and $300K in the AHL. Murray called him a "big, gritty defenseman" whom they "targeted as a depth-guy." Although Falk will compete for a spot on the NHL roster, he'll probably spend nearly all of his time in Rochester. That said, the Amerks certainly could use a player like Falk whom Murray described as "a winner."

The Sabres also signed a contract to land defenseman Taylor Fedun, but Murray said that the 6'0" 201 lb. right-handed defenseman hasn't put ink to paper yet so it's not officially done.


The Sabres are still looking for a back-up goalie to Robin Lehner and Chad Johnson bolted to Calgary on a one-year deal ($1.7M) and Murray thought he had one in the bag.

Murray got played yesterday by a goalie whom he didn't name, but with a little deductive reasoning seems to be Jeff Zatkoff, who signed with the LA Kings. Apparently the unnamed goalie had a deal in place with the club he eventually signed with for $750K, Murray sent a signed contract to him for $850K and "he ended up signing back with the other team at $900K" (FYI, Zatkoff signed a 2yr./$1.8M deal wit the Kings.)

"It sounds like he said yes to both teams and took the offer from both teams and...I'm gonna leave it at that," said an obviously ticked off Murray. "It's never happened to me. I had a verbal agreement and it was reneged upon."


Some Sabres-centric signings:

Tim Schaller--Boston
Jamie McBain--Arizona
Brian Campbell--Chicago
Vanek, Steve Ott--Detroit
Chris Stewart--Minnesota
Nate Gerbe--NY Rangers
Phil Varone, Mike Kostka--Ottawa
Chad Ruhwedel--Pittsburgh

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