For about a month from when the Tampa Bay Lightning were eliminated in Game-7 of the Eastern Conference Finals until a few days after the 2016 NHL Draft, Steven Stamkos reigned supreme as the potential top free agent that would be hitting the market on July 1. On June 29th, however, suitors who had been lining up for him got the news that Stamkos would remain in Tampa armed with a new 8 yr./$68M contract.
The Buffalo Sabres were one of those teams in on Stamkos but after he re-upped in Tampa they turned their attention to a player considered to be best free agent available--RW, Kyle Okposo.
Okposo was taken seventh-overall in the 2006 NHL Draft by the NY Islanders. In 529 games he has scored 139 goals and added 230 assists in a somewhat choppy career for the Islanders. His best season came in 2013-14 when he tallied 69 points (27g+42a) in 71 games. According to his wiki page Okposo spent most of that season on a line with center John Tavares and former Buffalo Sabre Thomas Vanek at left wing.
When Okposo made his NHL debut in late 2008 the Islanders were beginning a long rebuild. In Okposo's first full season on the Island they finished dead last, won the lottery and selected Tavares with the first-overall pick. They would follow with three consecutive top-five picks in the next three drafts before their rebuild began to take hold. From the 2008-09 to 2011-12 the Islanders never finished with more than 79 points.
It was a bad time for the franchise and an especially difficult one for Okposo who was one of the youngest players on the team. In a Players' Tribune piece after he signed with the Sabres Okposo talked about that era and Nassau Coliseum, "a place," he wrote, "that would grow on me like ivy on an old house," a place "only filled to half capacity when we were going through down years, or on the night of a bad winter storm." He thanked the fans for sticking by him during those rough times.
"I’m not a perfect player," he wrote. "I went through some pretty rough times with my game. The Isles’ fans and organization stuck by me. I’ll forever be grateful for that. The organization could have easily cast me aside and gotten rid of me, but they helped me through it. When I would go to an autograph signing or an appearance during those tough times, the fans would say, 'Stick with it,' or 'We love your game. Those things brought a smile to my face."
That game that the fans loved came to the fore in 2013 as he said goodbye to a four-goal season (in 48 games) through a stronger training regiment and better eating habits. Since that lockout-shortened disaster of a season Okposo has averaged 61 points (22+39) over the last three seasons playing in an average of 70 games. As mentioned, he had a breakout year in 2013-14 (69 points) and finished last season with 22 goals and 42 assists mostly playing on a line with long-time teammate Frans Neilsen, not Tavares.
It only took a 15 minute phone call from the Sabres for Okposo to sign a 7 yr./$42M free agent contract with the club. On a conference call afterward Okposo told the media, "what sold me first and foremost is the chance to win a Stanley Cup. I think we have a lot of pieces in play that can help us achieve that goal."
Amongst those pieces are two top-six centers in Ryan O'Reilly and Jack Eichel either of which he'll be playing on a line with. Add in Evander Kane on the left side and Sam Reinhart in the top-six as well and the Sabres are only missing one piece on their top two lines. "I looked at the forwards and especially their top two centers with O'Reilly and Eichel, and those two guys are only going to continue to get better, especially Jack," Okposo said at the call. "He's got superstar status, and you definitely need that to win a Stanley Cup."
One of the big things for the further development of the Sabres as an organization is that Okposo, widely considered the top free agent on the market, chose to be in Buffalo. Sure the price was right, but the Minnesota native and father of two, also took into account what former players had to say concerning the team and the area.
Okposo picked the brains of Vanek and present Sabre Matt Moulson. Moulson is the godfather to Okposo's daughter and while Okposo is the godfather to Moulson's son. He also talked to his good friend Drew Stafford who had some rough years before being traded by the Sabres to the Winnipeg Jets. When Okposo told Stafford he'd be wearing his old No. 21, according to NHL beat writer Joe Yerdon, Stafford had something to say about it. Okposo's reply to Stafford, “I’ll take it down out of the rafters for you.”
The 6'0" 216 lb. Okposo is heading into this season with the wind in his sails and is joining a team on the rise. At 28 yrs. old he's the elder statesman of the new core Murray now has. But he's still going through major changes with the move. How he adapts to those changes--from familial to professional, as well as his big contract--will determine his successes on the ice. However, with the support group he has surrounding him, there's no reason why he can't finish right around where he did last season. He'll see plenty of ice-time as the Sabres top right wing this season and will have either O'Reilly or Eichel centering his line which would be very similar to the talent he had in Nielsen and Tavares the last few seasons.
Buffalo is a team on the rise and he's anxious to get rolling. Like he said in the last line of his Tribune piece, "Let’s get it, Buffalo."
Building the 2016-17 Buffalo Sabres roster:
LW, Evander Kane/ C, Ryan O'Reilly/ RW, Kyle Okposo