Welcome to LWOS Hockey’s summer series. After the historic 2016 NHL Free Agency period, it’s a good time to look at the best free agent signing in the history of all 30 NHL franchises. Up next: The all-time best Buffalo Sabres free agent signing.
The Sabres have not been an ideal landing spot for free agents in their 45-year history. Recently, the team has either gotten marginal success or downright disappointments from their pacts with player on the open market. Goaltender Patrick Lalime did not provide any insurance as a back-up to Ryan Miller, winning nine games in 38 starts posting a .901 save percentage on a team that made the playoffs the last two years of his deal.
Defenseman Jordan Leopold signed for three years and had a career year his first season scoring 13 goals and 35 points, but put up 24 the next season and was traded midway through the last year of his deal. Defenseman Cody Franson signed a two-year pact as a sought-after 6’5″, 234 right-handed blue liner that could provide offense from the back end, only to have his worst offensive season in his first with the Sabres (four goals, 17 points in 59 games). Current captain Brian Gionta, a seven-time 20-goal scorer, has underwhelmed entering the final year of his deal, posting 25 goals and 68 points in 145 games played as a likely fourth line player ($4.25 million AAV).
Some glaring disasters include defenseman deals with defenseman Christian Ehrhoff, left-winger Matt Moulson, and the 2010 playoff legend, left-winger Ville Leino. Ehrhoff signed a whopping 10-year, $40 million deal in 2011 coming off of three straight 40+ point seasons topping out at 50 with the Canucks in his contract year to go along with two consecutive 14-goal campaigns. He would never top 35 points or double digit goal totals in three years with the Sabres and was bought out in 2014, leaving an annual $857,143 cost against the team until 2027-28. Moulson, a former 30-goal scorer, has scored just 21 goals 158 games into his five-year, $25 million deal signed in 2014. Leino signed a six-year deal paying him $4.5 million per season after an incredible 2010 postseason (seven goals, 21 points in 19 games) and impressive 2010-11 campaign (19 goals, 53 points in 81 games) with the Flyers. He’d score ten goals and 46 points combined in 137 games before getting bought out halfway through the pact.
It’s clear Buffalo‘s money has not been well-spent with recent acquisitions. However, that trend may be coming to an end with a splash the Sabres made this past July 1st. We present the best Buffalo Sabres Free Agent signing.
The All-Time Best Buffalo Sabres Free Agent Signing
2016 – Kyle Okposo: Seven Years, $42 million ($7 million AAV)
Okposo was a highly touted scorer coming out of the USHL’s Des Moines Buccaneers, spending one season there in 2005-06 and making some history, scoring 27 goals and 58 points in 50 games. He was one year removed from high school and finished second on the team in scoring to Trevor Lewis, who would go in the same draft he did at 17th overall. The then-17 year old saved his best for last in the postseason however, tallying five goals and 16 points in 11 games to help the Buccaneers capture their second Clark Cup Championship in history. This single season won Okposo the USHL Rookie of the Year and a spot in the Buccaneers Hall of Fame. The team currently has missed the playoffs for nine consecutive years, signifying the impact Okposo served. This performance earned him a 7th overall selection by the New York Islanders in the ’06 Draft.
He then committed to his home state University of Minnesota for the ’06-07 season to play for legendary coach Don Lucia and proved the USHL performance was not a fluke, scoring 19 goals and 40 points in 40 games to finish second in team scoring. This earned him a spot on the US World Junior Team where he tallied an assist in seven games. The following year, he’d get his first taste of NHL action while being one of the bright spots for the 2008 World Junior team, scoring six points in six games. Okposo signed his NHL contract with the Isles to leave college shortly after representing his country and made his professional debut with Bridgeport, forcing his way into the NHL after an impressive nine goals and 28 points in just 35 games with the Sound Tigers. That would be all the St. Paul native needed before coming to the NHL for good in 2008-09 for his rookie season. Okposo made an instant impact like he did every stop before, scoring 18 goals and 39 points in 68 games. Seven seasons later and now 28, the 6’0″, 217-pound right winger has scored 20+ goals three times and 60+ points twice, including two of the last three seasons.
The Sabres seem to be trending in the right direction at the time of this signing after two of the worst years in the franchise’s history. The 52-point 2013-14 season saw them reel in Sam Reinhart at second overall and following 54-point campaign netted them Jack Eichel, again with the second selection. With two new young stars, a new and experienced head coach behind the bench in Dan Bylsma, Rasmus Ristolainen taking the next step as a young leader of the blueline, and the acquisitions of Zach Bogosian, Evander Kane, and Ryan O’Reilly, the team made a 27-point improvement to finish with 35 wins.
O’Reilly became the team’s leading scorer with 21 goals and 60 points in his first season, Eichel led the team in goals with 24, and Reinhart adapted to the NHL game well in his second go around, finising with 23 goals. The 21-year old Ristolainen put his name on the NHL map as an offensive threat from the back end, tallying 41 points to finish 5th in NHL scoring for defensemen under the age of 24. This offseason, with the drafting of Alexander Nylander at 8th overall, two-time 20-goal scorer Tyler Ennis coming back healthy, and the acquisition of another experienced bruising defenseman in Dmitry Kulikov, Okposo is walking into a better situation in Buffalo than most people think and will likely slide into a top line role playing with O’Reilly in a top six that has five players under the age of 25. Outside of the top forward group, Okposo spoke highly of the Sabres’ role players as well.
“Ryan [O’Reilly] is one of the smartest players, one of the smartest centers in the League in my opinion, and Jack [Eichel]’s got nowhere to go but up. His ceiling is so high and he’s going to be such a tremendous player in this League for a long time. [Marcus] Foligno is a guy that brings it every night and he works extremely hard. I think [Johan] Larsson is a really smart player and [Zemgus] Girgensons also. They’re just gonna keep growing into what kind of players they’re gonna be.”
-Kyle Okposo, Buffalo Sabres Right Winger
The Buffalo Sabres Free Agent Deal:
With owner Terry Pegula originally planning to back up the money truck to Newport Sports for Steven Stamkos (were reportedly willing to give up to $12 million), the Sabres wanted to get another top six threat that would improve upon their 26th overall finish in terms of goals for (199). After Stamkos re-signed with Tampa Bay a couple days before free agency, General Manager Tim Murray made sure to snag one of the premier wingers on the market in Okposo. The seven-year deal worth $7 million per campaign will make him a cornerstone as a top-line contributor entering his prime.
The team also acquired the negotiating rights to highly-coveted college free agent Jimmy Vesey, who is going to elect free agency on August 15th. If he ultimately comes to Buffalo, he’ll add another dimension to an already improved Sabres group up front, scoring 32 goals in his junior year at Harvard.
What remains to be seen is what happens with Kane, who’s been in the news for all the wrong reasons two times in less than a calendar year for accusations of assault and sexual misconduct. He is now one year removed from shoulder surgery and looks to return to the Sabres at 100% after a 20-goal season in ’15-16. The former 30-goal scorer at his best would form a formidable top line with O’Reilly and Okposo, barring a possible trade if the Sabres wanted to part ways.
What comes of Okposo’s tenure is yet to be seen, but with the way the Sabres are going, it’s fair to expect them to return to the playoffs sooner rather than later. The team will be counting on him to be a big part of the core going forward, and he embraced the expectations with high ones of his own.
“We’re going to be contenders. There’s not gonna be ‘those rough times ahead,’ we’re gonna be good. I feel like this team has a lot of pieces and maybe they don’t know how good they can be.”
The opportunity is there for this to be the best free agent signing in the team’s history. All Okposo has to do now is perform to his expectations and grow with his new, young club.
Quotes courtesy of WGRZ Buffalo