As Buffalo Sabres coach Dan Bylsma mentioned the additions of right wing Kyle Okposo and defenseman Dmitry Kulikov, he had one overriding thought about how the Sabres look in July.
"I think we're having a good offseason," said Bylsma, who is entering his second season as Sabres coach. "We thought we needed to get better, and with Kyle and Kulikov, both make us better."
Video: Newly acquired right wing Kyle Okposo meets the media
So would forward Jimmy Vesey, the unsigned Hobey Baker Award winner last season. The Sabres' exclusive window to sign Vesey is open until Aug. 15, at which point, if still unsigned, he would become an unrestricted free agent.
Bylsma and general manager Tim Murray met with Vesey and his representatives last Thursday to discuss the Sabres and all they have to offer. Bylsma shared his thoughts on that meeting, along with his feelings on Okposo, Kulikov and heightened expectations during a phone interview Monday.
Here are Five Questions with … Dan Bylsma:
Let's start with Kyle. You've coached against him a number of times. So what have you seen from him? Why do you think he's right for your team, and who do you potentially think he can fit best with?
"Last year, at the end of the year, we felt we could get better on the wing with a top-six, maybe even potentially two top-six forwards to add to our team. They certainly don't grow on trees. I think we all say that, and free agency wasn't necessarily a deep proposition this year. But to have the opportunity to add Kyle as one of those guys, a top-six guy, and place him on a wing potentially with Jack Eichel or potentially with Ryan O'Reilly, you're adding a pretty good piece, a really good player to your team.
"The Olympic year, 2013-14, Kyle was at the U.S. camp in August, and that year in particular was really I think a breakout year for him and his career. He'd had four or five years in the League at that point in time, but I really think that year he stepped out and really became a big-time player with his point production and what he could do and how consistent he could do it. Early on in his career, you saw the potential, but it wasn't there all the time. That year, he broke out [NHL career highs of 27 goals and 69 points] and had a great year with consistency in his game.
"I also do have some nightmares about Kyle. In the 2013 playoffs, in the first round against the Islanders [when Bylsma was coaching the Pittsburgh Penguins], he scored in Game 2 and won the game for them. He had a real good playoffs against us and pushed that series a little more than I would have liked. When I look at him, I still have flashbacks of him in that series."
Video: Kyle Okposo signs seven-year contract with Sabres
You talked about Kyle in 2013-14 and that playoff series in 2013, but what do you think about the overall package of Kyle Okposo since then? What about his game has intrigued you to want to coach him?
"We don't really have very many power forwards in the game anymore. It's a rare commodity. But Kyle fits into that role. He's big (6-foot, 217-pounds), powerful and strong and he skates well. But I think since 2013-14, what he's really started to do is get to the inside with his physical game, play on the inside and be able to finish from that area. He's got great skill; there's no question about that. If you watch his shootout moves, you can see he has good hands, good abilities. He's got a great shot and I think he's developed that in his game over the course of his career. But early on in his career, he wasn't as consistent in getting into the hard areas inside to be effective. Now that's where he's thriving. That's how he's turned into a 25- to 30-goal guy.
"We want to play a quick game and we want to play a game in the offensive zone, and Kyle has that skating ability and that power in his game to do that. He also fits into our power play in a spot that we need. You can get a high-end guy and he can play on the power play, but he might be playing in Jack Eichel's spot, so it becomes a tough fit for the player. But for us, Kyle fits right in where we need help [right shot in the middle of the ice between Eichel and O'Reilly], and where he's been in the past and where he can excel with his skill set."
The addition of Kulikov was interesting to me as well because all things considered with everyone healthy, adding him, a left-handed shot, gives you the ability to have a balanced defense group with three lefties and three righties. Was it important to you to have that balance? And if so why with Kulikov in the mix?
"I'm not 100 percent have to have a lefty and a righty, but our imbalance in the left and right situation was about the guys that we have on the right side haven't had a lot of experience and maybe aren't at their best when playing on the left side. That's why we felt we really needed a left shot. It certainly balanced out now with three lefts and three rights with [Rasmus] Ristolainen, [Zach] Bogosian and [Cody] Franson on the right, Kulikov, [Josh] Gorges and [Jake] McCabe on the left. If we had gone with four rights in our lineup and two lefts, we would have been at a serious imbalance because we weren't that comfortable on the left side with our guys who are right shots.
"Kulikov definitely plays with an edge. He's a top-four and has played in the top pairing. He played next to [Aaron] Ekblad in the playoffs last season and we thought his playoffs was outstanding. We thought he was maybe their best [defenseman] in their series. So we see him doing that for us. He is a good puck-mover. He skates really well. He's aggressive. He can defend against anybody and he does. Again, we look at our left side now and we feel it's really quite balanced with the three guys we have there."
Video: Sabres Acquire Kulikov and a pick from Florida
And there's one other player the Sabres are hoping to add, forward Jimmy Vesey. What was the sales pitch to Vesey on why he should sign with the Sabres and forgo the chance to become an unrestricted free agent, which would happen Aug. 15?
"First and foremost, he's got the opportunity to play a top-six role with our team. He's got the opportunity to play in a top-six role with a centerman like Jack or Ryan possibly, depending on how that would play out. We believe we're going to be a good team. We believe we're going to be a team that continues to get better and a team that competes for the Stanley Cup as we go forward here. We'll be better next season. We'll be better after that. And he's got a chance to grow with our group of young players. We can surround him with Jack and Sam [Reinhart], but even our veteran players are young players like Ryan O'Reilly, Evander Kane, now Kyle Okposo. He's got a chance to grow with that group and be a great team. I think that's the best opportunity for him in the League. We liked the meeting we had with him and we explained all that to him. He still has every right to choose what he wants, but we felt good about having the opportunity to explain it to him and talk to him about the opportunity."
Now that we've talked about Okposo and Kulikov and the potential for Vesey, let's talk about expectations. The Sabres went from a 54-point team in 2014-15 to an 81-point team last season. Nobody had any expectations for the Sabres last season, but I don't think we can say the same thing now. What can you do to manage the expectations? Or do you even want to manage them? What do you think about having expectations to potentially be a playoff team?
"I think it's a really valid point and it's one we're going to be dealing with right from the start of training camp. We're going to have that and we're going to want that expectation for our group. It's going to be a different type of feel for our whole team. There haven't been a lot of meaningful games for the Buffalo Sabres in the last three years, and now you might be coming into training camp with the thought that this is a playoff team and the expectation is there to do that.
"We started to try to develop it last year. We knew for the most part in the second half of the season we were out of contention, but we started to try to apply the pressure by saying this is what good teams do, how they play. We talked about how playoff teams win two out of three games, get four out of six points. We tried to have that last year with our group, and I think now there are going to be those expectations for our players. Not necessarily that we're going to feel it from the outside, but we're going to have those expectations for our players when we arrive in training camp.
"When we talked about our plan starting last year, we thought we were going to be an 80- to 85-point team last season even though we were obviously trying to make the playoffs right from the start. Prior to getting Kyle and the possibility of getting Jimmy Vesey, we thought we could be a 90- to 95-point team this year. Now Kyle and Kulikov, and if we can add Jimmy Vesey into our top six, we should expect to be 95 points or higher than that. We think we're better on defense. We think we're stronger. We're deeper. If you're looking at expectations from within, we should be above 95 points at the end of the season. It took 95 points to get into the playoffs in the East last season."