It was actually a few months before free agency that the Buffalo Sabres, with their play on the ice, left an impression on Kyle Okposo.
Early on in Friday’s free agent frenzy, the Sabres signed Okposo to a seven-year, $42 million deal. It was in the last regular season game of the year for Okposo, on April 9, that he began to see the growth with Buffalo’s rebuilding team.
He believes the Sabres are on an “accelerated rate” for their rebuild, making strides from the 2014-15 season.
“It was a completely different team, I feel like, playing them this year as opposed to the year before,” Okposo told reporters in a conference call.
“I just remember coming out of that game thinking, ‘Gosh, these guys are a really skilled bunch, really skilled group.’ They have a lot of upside. And obviously I didn’t know what was going to transpire over the next two months but just thinking how good some of their young players were.”
In the 2014-15 season, the Sabres finished with the worst record in the NHL. They didn’t get the first overall pick — which eventually became Connor McDavid — in the lottery, but they landed the No. 2 selection and Jack Eichel.
Buffalo then went out and added center Ryan O’Reilly and signed him to an extension through 2023.
The Sabres didn’t qualify for the playoffs last season. They finished 23rd overall, with a 35-36-11 record and 81 points.
But they’ve got a pretty good one-two punch up the middle with Eichel and O’Reilly, and that is an attractive aspect for Okposo, who has hit the 20-goal plateau in three of the last five seasons with the New York Islanders.
“Those guys are only going to continue to get better, especially Jack,” said Okposo. “He’s got super star status and you definitely need that to win a Stanley Cup.”
Landing Okposo could also represent a further step for the Sabres in making Buffalo a go-to location for coveted free agents.
“It means a lot,” said Sabres GM Tim Murray, as per the Buffalo News. “It means what I have felt since I got here, that we can be a destination for good players, I think this shows that we are.
“It’s exciting to get a player of his caliber who had a choice of — I won’t say 30 teams — but certainly a lot of teams, and he decided to come here.”