BUFFALO, N.Y. — Once Lightning captain Steven Stamkos took himself off the free-agent market, the Buffalo Sabres turned to Plan B: Kyle Okposo.
The Sabres signed the former New York Islanders forward to a seven-year, $42 million contract in one of the first deals completed after the NHL’s signing period opened Friday.
"He was drafted high. He was a high-profile guy. And he’s lived up to that," general manager Tim Murray said of Okposo, who was selected seventh overall in the 2006 draft.
"It’s exciting to get a player of his caliber that had a choice of I won’t say 30 teams, but certainly a lot of teams, and decided to come here."
The three-time 20-goal scorer fills a top-line need on a Sabres team that has spent the past two years rebuilding through youth. Murray already envisions Okposo playing right wing on a line centered by either Ryan O’Reilly or Jack Eichel.
After playing alongside Islanders captain John Tavares, Okposo is already looking forward to the possibilities of what the Sabres’ lineup has to offer.
"What sold me first and foremost, and I’ve been saying it all day, is the chance to win the Stanley Cup, and I think we have a lot of pieces in place that can help us achieve that goal," Okposo said.
"And when I looked at their forwards, and especially their top two centers in O’Reilly and Eichel, those guys are only going to continue to get better, especially Jack. He’s got superstar status."
Okposo is an eight-year NHL veteran and regarded as one of the top players available on the market after Stamkos elected to re-sign with Tampa Bay on Wednesday. Murray noted that the Sabres had a face-to-face meeting with Stamkos and his representatives on Sunday.
The Sabres are attempting to quicken their push to become contenders after showing signs of improvement last season. Buffalo finished 23rd in the standings this past season after two consecutive last-place finishes.
After being part of a lengthy rebuilding plan on Long Island, Okposo likes the Sabres’ approach.
"They’ve been going at an accelerated rate," Okposo said. "I think we can get there quicker than I did with the Islanders."
Okposo becomes the Sabres’ second-highest-paid player, behind O’Reilly, who signed a seven-year, $52 million deal shortly after being acquired in a trade from Colorado last summer. And Okposo is close with Sabres forward Matt Moulson. The two played together in New York, and are godfathers’ of each other’s children.
Listed at 6 feet and 217 pounds, Okposo has scored 67 of his 139 goals over the past three seasons, including 10 game-winners and 11 coming on the power play.
The Sabres have now addressed several key needs.
Last weekend, they acquired veteran defenseman Dmitry Kulikov in a trade with Florida.
Buffalo is also in the position to sign forward Jimmy Vesey, after acquiring the rights to college hockey’s top player last season in a trade with Nashville two weeks ago.
Murray said his next priority is meeting with Vesey and his representatives next week. The Sabres took a gamble in acquiring Vesey, who is eligible to become a free agent on Aug. 15.
The Sabres on Friday also filled depth needs by signing free-agent defensemen Justin Falk and Taylor Fedun to one-year, two-way contracts.
Falk split last season between the Columbus Blue Jackets and their American Hockey League affiliate. Fedun had a brief stint with Edmonton in 2013-14, while spending much of the past five seasons in the AHL.
Without saying who, Murray said he had a verbal agreement to sign a backup goalie, but the deal fell through when the player reneged and signed with another team.
Murray wasn’t pleased with what happened by saying: "I’m going to leave it at that. I wouldn’t say anything very nice, I guess."
The Sabres need to restock their goalie depth behind starter Robin Lehner after backup Chad Johnson signed with Calgary.