Kyle Okposo's Signing with Non-Contender Surprising, but He Will Improve Sabres

Adrian Dater@@adaterNHL National ColumnistJuly 1, 2016

New York Islanders right wing Kyle Okposo (21) drives the puck ahead of Buffalo Sabres left wing Nicolas Deslauriers (44) during the first period of an NHL hockey game on Sunday, Nov. 1, 2015, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek)
Kathy Kmonicek/Associated Press

When Steven Stamkos took himself off the market on Wednesday, Kyle Okposo immediately went to the top of several free-agent rankings, including mine. There were a couple of reasons for that.

First, Okposo was one of the younger players available at 28.

Second, among all forwards available entering Friday's opening bell of the market, none had more points over the last three seasons than him. As tabulated by TSN.ca's Scott Cullen, Okposo's 184 points in 210 games over the last three seasons were eight more than Jiri Hudler's 176 and 22 more than Andrew Ladd's 162.

The Buffalo Sabres were impressed enough by that and presumably other things about Okposo to offer him a seven-year, $42 million contract, which the native of Saint Paul, Minnesota, agreed to on Friday. That contract equaled that of Milan Lucic in Edmonton as the richest of the day (a deal first reported by Pierre LeBrun of ESPN).

Given that other teams had interest in Okposoincluding the Minnesota Wild, as reported by Michael Russo of the Star Tribuneit was something of a surprise that he chose Buffalo.

The Wild have not only been a perennial playoff team, but Okposo is from Minnesota and played his college hockey at the University of Minnesota.

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 03: Kyle Okposo #21 of the New York Islanders skates against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Second Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Barclays Center on May 03, 2016 in the Brooklyn bo
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

So many players have chosen to play for the Wild because of Minnesota roots and connections, including Zach Parise and Thomas Vanek, that one might have presumed Okposo would be another.

So, why Buffalo? Why go to a team that hasn't made the playoffs since 2010-11, one that, while improving, still lacks a few key things (quality defense, goaltending, overall offensive depth) to be considered a realistic contender?

The pundits may disagree, but Okposo told TSN (via the Buffalo News) he believes the Sabres are a contender again, right now:

I think they have a chance to win a Cup. That's the ultimate goal. That's why we play the game. They have a really good of group of young players that are only going to get better.

They're a great organization obviously with the Pegulas at the helm. Everybody always talks so highly of them.

There is no question Okposo makes the Sabres a better team.

Where he plays figures to be an interesting question for coach Dan Bylsma. Should Okposo take Sam Reinhart's right wing spot on a line with Jack Eichel or should he skate with Ryan O'Reilly on the right side?

Eichel and Reinhart developed some real chemistry playing together, so it might make more sense for Okposo and O'Reilly to start out as linemates.

Okposo has proved he can score playing with good centers. He mostly played with John Tavares and Frans Nielsen over the last few seasons with the New York Islanders. Was he worth seven years and $42 million, though?

I asked some hardcore Islanders fans for their assessments of Okposo, and they were mixed:

Maybe Okposo isn't worth that kind of money and term. But it was the first day of free agency, he's still only 28 and a lot of teams were just starved for offense. The Sabres, whose 201 goals were 13th in the Eastern Conference, were one of them.

With other teams vying for his services, the Sabres had to pay a premium to get him.

Buffalo is probably still a ways away from winning a Stanley Cup. The goaltending situation is iffy and there isn't a bona fide No. 1 defenseman, although Zach Bogosian and Rasmus Ristolainen could still become those guys.

Some questionable contracts remain on the books, most especially the three years and $15 million the Sabres still owe Matt Moulson, according to General Fanager.

The Sabres touted Moulson as a big part of their future when they signed him to a five-year, $25 million free-agent contract two years ago, but he's been a major bust so far. He had only eight goals and 21 points in 81 games last season. Buffalo will also pay 37-year-old Brian Gionta $4.25 million this coming season.

So, again, why Buffalo? Okposo obviously had his reasons. Forty two million of them, for starters.

Unless otherwise noted, free-agency information courtesy of TSN.ca.

Adrian Dater covers the NHL for Bleacher Report.

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