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Okposo eager to get going with the Sabres, Eichel

Kyle Okposo was entering his third NHL season when "The Next One" arrived. John Tavares had unlimited potential, and New York Islanders fans were ready to watch.

Okposo rode shotgun as Tavares grew from heralded prospect to rookie phenom to All-Star center to Hart Trophy finalist. Along the way, there were good times, bad times and unforgettable moments.

Okposo is eager to accompany Jack Eichel on a similar journey.

"Jack's got nowhere to go but up," Okposo said Thursday during his official Buffalo Sabres introduction. "His ceiling is so high, and he's going to be such a tremendous player in this league for a long time. Looking forward to helping him grow and just try to continue to cultivate him as a player."

Okposo, signed to a seven-year, $42 million contract last week, is determined to play a huge role in Buffalo. In addition to scoring and skating on the first line, the 28-year-old will be expected to lead the team's budding stars. After playing with Tavares, he has the experience to help the Sabres' young franchise center.

"I see a lot of similarities," Okposo said in First Niagara Center. "Obviously, I don't know Jack's game as well as I knew Johnny's from playing with him, but I see a lot of similarities in the hype and the skill set and some of the things that he does out there from when Johnny was 18.

"I know where Johnny's career path went, and I know how he worked and how hard it was for him to get there. Just looking forward to maybe saying a couple things to Jack or sharing some of those experiences with him and just trying to help him grow."

The much-hyped rookie seasons for Eichel and Tavares were remarkably similar. Tavares recorded 24 goals, 30 assists and 54 points. Eichel had 24 goals, 32 assists and 56 points. The Islanders improved 18 points when Tavares arrived. The Sabres experienced a 27-point increase with Eichel.

Okposo wants to help Buffalo take another step.

"We're going to be a better team this year than they were last year," the right winger said. "I feel like this team has a lot of pieces, and maybe they don't know how good they can be. Hopefully, it comes sooner rather than later."

While it will take more than talent to end a five-year playoff drought, the Sabres have certainly upped their skill level. With Ryan O'Reilly, Rasmus Ristolainen, Sam Reinhart, Dmitry Kulikov, Zach Bogosian and Evander Kane to go along with Eichel and Okposo, the newcomer expects them to be a contender.

"The future is bright," Okposo said. "I really believe that we can win here. That's what sold me. That's why you play the game. You play the game to win a Stanley Cup, to win a championship, to raise banners. I think this team has the ability to do that."

For the Sabres to excel, they'll need their new No. 21 to play a big part.

"He's going to have a huge role here," General Manager Tim Murray said. "We're just extremely excited and can't wait to get going."

Okposo, an alternate captain with the Islanders, seems capable of handling the expectations that will accompany his predictions and big-money deal.

"I don't think you can change the way you play based on a contract," said Okposo, who averaged .88 points per game the past three seasons. "That's kind of when you get into trouble when those expectations beat you down and weigh you down. I'm going to go out there and play the way I know how and prepare the same and make sure my game is there.

"I'm at a point in my career where I know what I need to do to be successful, and I'm going to continue to do that and continue to try and get better."

Okposo is already envisioning the next step of his career. He took a tour of his new dressing room and workout area before stopping by the Sabres' bench. He looked around and pictured the crowd cheering Oct. 13 when Buffalo welcomes Montreal for the home opener.

"I've always liked playing in this building," Okposo said. "There's some buildings where you feel comfortable and others where maybe you might not feel as good. I've always felt good in this building. I'm excited to play in it and call it home and make it home for the next number of years."

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