|(Photo Credit: Getty Images)
Kyle Okposo remembers how he felt when he came off the ice at Barclays Center after a game on April 9. In what would turn out to be his last game of the regular season – his son, Odin, would be born two days later –Okposo and his New York Islanders had lost 4-3 in overtime to the Sabres.
It didn’t seem like the same team he'd faced before.
"I just remember coming out of that game thinking, 'Gosh, these guys are a really skilled bunch,' and that they had a lot of upside," Okposo said in a conference call on Friday evening. "Obviously I didn’t know what was going to transpire over the next two months."
Perhaps it was that sort of thinking that can help explain why all it took was a 15-minute phone call from Buffalo's General Manager and coach to pique Okposo's interest in joining the Sabres earlier this week, and why Okposo ultimately decided to make it official by signing a seven-year contract on Friday.
When they spoke on that call, Sabres GM Tim Murray began to list all of the reasons why Buffalo, as a city, was a preferable hockey market. Okposo stopped him short. He knew all about the city; he'd already received positive reviews from former Sabres like Drew Stafford and Thomas Vanek and a current one in Matt Moulson, all three of whom he considers friends.
What he needed to be sold on was the direction of the organization, but even that didn’t take much. Murray was able to promise him a chance to play on the right wing of either Jack Eichel or Ryan O'Reilly. Frankly, Okposo wasn't picky about either.
"He knows that Jack's a great young player and he raved about Ryan and how hard he was to play against and [how] he was a complete 200-foot player and all the different adjectives that you use about a player like Ryan," Murray said.
On Friday, Okposo was blunt as to why he chose the Sabres: he believes they provide him with a chance to win the Stanley Cup. In Eichel, he reasoned, you have a player with a superstar ceiling – a key ingredient to a Stanley Cup Champion, he believes – and you have an All-Star in O'Reilly as well.
That talent was enough for the Sabres to reel in the biggest fish on their free agent wish list once Steven Stamkos announced he would remain in Tampa Bay on Wednesday. It marked a significant event for the franchise and its standing in eyes of the League.
"It means a lot," Murray said. "It means what I have felt since I got here, that we could be a destination for good players … It's exciting to get a player of his caliber who had the choice of, I won't say 30 teams, but certainly a lot of teams, decide to come here."
In Okposo, the Sabres have added a six-foot, 217-pound player on the right wing with the build of a power forward but the skill to have averaged 61 points over the past three seasons. Those three years have been drastic improvements from his first five full seasons, when his career-high for points was 52.
"I started working with a skills coach," he said. "That really helped my game and made me a more consistent player. I felt like I was being pushed into being average and I didn't want to do that. I want to try to excel and be the best player I could be. I felt like the last three years, I've been on a better track."
Now that track leads to Buffalo, where a young team awaits with hope that bright days are on the horizon. Okposo's been through a rebuild with New York similar to the one that Buffalo is coming out of, and he believes he knows what it takes to get the Sabres to the next level.
"I hope I can provide a veteran presence," he said. "I think we can get there quicker than I did with the Islanders. I just want to try to help the team in that aspect and try to help the team win a Cup."