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Better days ahead for Sabres as rebuild nears finish

Remember when Tim Murray said prior to the NHL Draft that he hopes there’s a day he’s happy with his top six forwards and top four defenseman? He’s getting closer, a lot closer.

The rebuilding of the Buffalo Sabres is barreling toward the finish line. When it comes to core players, the general manager is closing in on his team. The real thing. The one he hopes will push his club toward a Stanley Cup. If that day comes in the next few years, a lot of the big names you see on the roster today will be involved, in concert with plenty of organizational prospects.

Run through the list in your head. Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart. Ryan O’Reilly. Rasmus Ristolainen and Jake McCabe. Robin Lehner. Kyle Okposo joined the marquee names Friday. It remains to be seen what becomes of the likes of younger names like Zach Bogosian, Marcus Foligno, Johan Larsson, Tyler Ennis and Zemgus Girgensons but all could certainly have a role.

Now, there’s admittedly some tinkering to be done.

I’m convinced Murray is still trying to pry defenseman Cam Fowler from Anaheim (my unsolicited advice would be to dangle next year’s No. 1 pick). The wooing of Hobey Baker Award winner – and Jack Eichel friend/summer league teammate – Jimmy Vesey will begin in earnest next week. The Sabres have to find a backup goaltender after Chad Johnson left for Calgary and Jeff Zatkoff reneged on a deal and went to Los Angeles, clearly producing smoke from Murray’s ears when he met the media Friday.

More smoke emerged when the GM was asked about Evander Kane, whose irresponsible public behavior has plenty of folks questioning his longevity in Blue and Gold. Kane is 24. He’s no rookie. He’s close enough to last chance that he should never see last call on Chippewa Street again.

But let’s not allow Kane’s shenanigans to color what’s been an eventful week for this club. Okposo is a terrific addition and, in this day and age, a $6 million cap hit is not really Stupid Season money. With Steven Stamkos off the board, the Sabres signed arguably the biggest free agent available. No small feat for a town that time once forgot and a team that’s been in the NHL’s nether regions for far too long.

Things are certainly changing downtown, as everyone in the league saw on draft weekend. Okposo, in fact, said on a conference call Friday he didn’t need to be sold on Buffalo at all. He simply wanted to talk to Murray and coach Dan Bylsma about his role. The first conversation lasted all of 15 minutes and Okposo was already pumped.

“It’s great,” Murray said. “I think that if we can get in front of somebody, have a chance to talk about the organization and ownership and the city, only good things can come of it.”

Okposo did plenty of due diligence on the Sabres, talking to former Islanders teammate Matt Moulson after the season and again this week. He said he also talked to former teammate Thomas Vanek and close friend Drew Stafford. The recommendations were glowing for the team and the community, especially for players with families.

“As an organization I didn’t hear one bad thing about the Buffalo Sabres,” said Okposo, who has two small children. “The organization really reflects upon your owner and I’ve heard the Pegulas do a fantastic job and are great people to play for and work for.”

Okposo even said he and Bylsma talked about where he’d like to be on the power play. (Memo to Bylsma: Ask Eichel too. I guarantee you he wants to be on the half-wall on his off wing).

Okposo is 28 and you’ll hear all kinds of chatter he’s on the downside. That’s bunk. Okposo had 64 points last year and it’s worthwhile noting that Ryan O’Reilly led the Sabres with 60. You have to particularly like Okposo’s assist totals, an average of 39 per season over the last three years. He had 42 last year, three more than O’Reilly’s team-high total.

If this is a consolation prize to Stamkos, it’s a pretty good one. Murray didn’t want to get too deep into detail on talks with the player he dubbed “The Big Fish” but acknowledged Buffalo had a great meeting with Stamkos on Sunday. The Sabres, Toronto, Montreal and a fourth mystery team (believed to be San Jose) were the only clubs Stamkos met with.

“You go into stuff like that with great hopes but you expect the worst and prepare for the worst,” Murray said. “It was still a great experience being able to get in front of a guy like that and give your sell if you want to call it that. He’s a great young man. ... We’ve called and thanked his agency for allowing us to be part of that.”

For his part, Okposo talked Friday about the Stanley Cup. It’s heady stuff for a team that hasn’t won a single series since 2007 but, for once, it wasn’t a laughable thought. The forwards are a deeper bunch and so is the defense with Dmitry Kulikov added in.

Through all of this, the most important player to the team’s success next season will be Lehner. Especially without the insurance of Chad Johnson behind him, the big guy has to play the way Murray envisioned when he dealt a first-round pick for him just over 12 months ago.

Winning time is at hand. The Sabres didn’t get the Big Fish and aren’t ready to win the Big Silver Bowl just yet. But they don’t look like they’re automatically packing their equipment the second week of April anymore either.