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By joining Sabres, improved Okposo sees a chance at the Stanley Cup

Kyle Okposo was 25 when he stepped back and took a really hard look at himself. He saw an NHL player who'd had 19- and 24-goal seasons. He also saw someone who'd totaled four and five. Essentially, he saw a guy who was average.

He didn't want to be that guy.

"I wanted to try and excel and be the best player that I could be," Okposo said Friday. "I felt like the last three years I've been on a better track."

Indeed, after changing the way he trained, ate and played, Okposo turned himself into one of the better forwards in the league. He's 17th in points per game since 2013, using his talent and 6-foot, 217-pound frame to create plays and torment goalies.

In the process, the right winger became the top free agent on the market. The Buffalo Sabres snatched him up, not that it was difficult.

After one 15-minute phone call last week with General Manager Tim Murray and coach Dan Bylsma, Okposo knew Buffalo was the place for him. The Sabres knew it, too. A seven-year, $42 million contract sealed it.

"What sold me first and foremost is the chance to win a Stanley Cup," Okposo said on a conference call. "I think we have a lot of pieces in play that can help us achieve that goal."

Okposo instantly became one of those pieces. The 28-year-old will play on the top line alongside Ryan O'Reilly or Jack Eichel, bolstering the Sabres' offense by joining Sam Reinhart, Evander Kane and, quite possibly, Jimmy Vesey.

"I like our top six forwards a lot," Murray said in First Niagara Center. "For all the different reasons that you evaluate players, he was at the top of the list."

The Sabres and their fans have long dreamed about landing the top free agent. Usually, they see the guy go elsewhere. Not this time.

"It means a lot," Murray said. "It means that what I have felt since I got here, that we could be a destination for good players, I think this shows that we are."

Just as Murray finished his thought about players wanting to come to Buffalo, his phone rang.

"There's another one," he jokingly said, before turning serious when he looked at the caller ID. "That is another one."

He didn't take that phone call, but he will make a house call to a player capable of changing the Sabres. After previously being steadfast in their desire to test unrestricted free agency Aug. 15, Vesey and his agents are going to talk to the Sabres about a contract.

"We hope to meet with Buffalo in the near future and are open to anything," agent Peter Fish said in an email to The Buffalo News.

The Sabres took a gamble last month by acquiring Vesey from Nashville. They knew college hockey's best player might not even talk to them. Now there's a chance the left winger could join his good friend Eichel on a young, impressive scoring line.

"The next step is next week go and meet with him and extol the virtues of the organization and the city of Buffalo and tell him how much we like him and we need him," Murray said.

Signing Vesey would have a major impact on the Sabres' depth. Two years ago, Matt Moulson, Tyler Ennis and Zemgus Girgensons skated on the first line. Next season, they could be the fourth.

"It was a completely different team playing them this year as opposed to the year before," said Okposo, who spent nine seasons with the New York Islanders after being drafted seventh overall in 2006. "I've gone through kind of a rebuild, and knowing the next step that has to come, I think we can get there quicker than I did with the Islanders."

Okposo quizzed two former teammates, Moulson and Thomas Vanek, before signing with Buffalo. He also talked with good friend Drew Stafford. All three praised the city and organization. Okposo knew they were being sincere given his relationships with them, especially Moulson.

"He's godfather to my daughter and I'm godfather to his son," Okposo said.

Moulson paid attention while Okposo put up 139 goals and 369 points in 529 regular-season games, including 22 goals and 64 points last season. Okposo, a Minnesota native, has added seven goals and 15 points in 24 playoff games.

He's ready for more.

"I looked at the forwards and especially their top two centers with O'Reilly and Eichel, and those two guys are only going to continue to get better, especially Jack," Okposo said. "He's got superstar status, and you definitely need that to win a Stanley Cup."

Teams also need a No. 1 defenseman, and Murray is on his way toward locking up the Sabres' potential stud. He and Rasmus Ristolainen are "going in the right direction" on a long-term contract. The 21-year-old is a restricted free agent.

"They tell us he really wants to be here, and certainly we want him to be here," Murray said. "It's not going to be an easy thing to hammer out and it's not going to be cheap, but young, good players, you tie them up and you keep going."

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