Kyle Okposo knows about rebuilding.
He spent his nine-year NHL career with the New York Islanders as the team went five straight seasons without making the playoffs. By 2012-13, the Islanders went to the conference quarterfinals, losing in six games to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
So while joining the Buffalo Sabres as a free agent signing over the summer brings him a new organization and the accompanying excitement and nerves, it also brings him to somewhat familiar territory -- helping a team turn the corner.
And what excites him most about joining the Sabres is "the room to grow."
"I think there’s a lot of room to improve and the upside of this team is extremely high," Okposo said Thursday morning in KeyBank Center as players reported for physicals and meetings on the first day of training camp. "I’ve been through a rebuild before early in my career and have seen it come to kind of a fruition you can say. And there is light at the end of the tunnel and for this team I think it could come a lot quicker than my experiences with the Islanders just because of how talented the group is and how hard we work. So I’m really looking forward to that."
Okposo scored 139 goals in 529 games with the Islanders and he provides much-needed depth on a Sabres team with expectations of breaking their five-year playoff drought.
"I just think he’s the same player every time he’s on the ice and I think that’s an important part for our team with a young team like we have," said Sabres' goaltender Robin Lehner. "He brings everything he can every game. He’s responsible both offensively and defensively and I think he will be a good leader for our group."
Okposo said his leadership comes from example, not talk. He also said there's no extra pressure on his shoulders after signing a seven-year, $42 million contract with the Sabres.
"I think with the contract, you can’t really look at it and say ‘Oh I have to play a different way because I signed a seven-year contract.’ You can’t do that. That’s when your game starts to falter," he said. "You start to do things that aren’t yourself. I’m just going to go out there and play my game, do the things I know how to do.
"With me being a new person coming into a new situation, I’m not going to be a vocal, rah-rah kind of guy. I’m more of a quiet guy who tries to lead by example. If I see something that needs to be said, I’ll say it. I’m not afraid to say it. That’s just part of gaining the trust of your teammates and building up that reputation of just a good guy."
His good-guy reputation in Buffalo began early with his classy response to questions about Team USA's poor showing at the World Cup and Phil Kessel's now infamous tweet. Kessel, who was left off the Team USA roster, took to Twitter snark after the U.S. was eliminated from contention with a 4-2 loss to Canada.
Just sitting around the house tonight w my dog. Felt like I should be doing something important, but couldn't put my finger on it.
— Phil Kessel (@PKessel81) September 21, 2016
Okposo was also not part of the U.S. roster, a decision that has been questioned in the media as well. But Okposo didn't go where Kessel went.
"Phil is obviously a tremendous player and he had an awesome playoffs and he’s had a great career," Okposo said. "I thought that in 2014 when they were in Sochi that he was one of the best American forwards on the team so I think he’s earned that right to say what he said. Me being in a little bit different situation, I don’t think I have. I wish those guys would have had a different result obviously, but they picked the team that they thought was going to be the best and that’s their decision.
"Would I like to be there? Of course I would. Of course I wanted to be there and I wanted to make that team. I wanted to try and help those guys out but that wasn’t the case so I just keep playing my game and maybe next time."