Kyle Okposo knows about building programs. There are great moments and then there are nights where you scratch your head.
Okposo lived through a lot of struggles with the New York Islanders, not making the playoffs in his first four years. If you're old enough to remember, this is a franchise that won four straight Stanley Cups in the early 80s and we may never see that again. But the modern-day Islanders went 23 years without winning a single playoff series until finally beating the Florida Panthers last year in six games.
The Islanders built their team around John Tavares. The Sabres are doing it around Jack Eichel. Things can get overly giddy at times when Eichel gets molten, like he was in the second half of Tuesday's win over Los Angeles. Balance is needed because the Sabres remain an infuriating group at times, like they were during Friday's 3-2 overtime win against the Islanders.
Okposo made the play on the winner, feeding Rasmus Ristolainen for the big defenseman's second OT tally of the season.
Meanwhile, the now-Brooklynites seem to be the same way after letting Okposo, Frans Nielsen and Matt Martin go in free agency and slipping back to the bottom of the Eastern Conference.
"They have a special player in Johnny T and you can point to the last couple of years where we were there in the playoffs," Okposo said heading into his first meeting with his old club "Here, being with Jack and Ryan O'Reilly and throw Risto (Rasmus Ristolainen) in the mix too. Those are guys you're building around to hopefully win big here."
It hasn't happened yet this year because of the Sabres' rash of injuries. But this team is just about back to full strength now with Zach Bogosian on an any-day status. They need him too. The defense was putrid at times Friday, to the point where it really misses 19-year-old Brendan Guhle.
(Guhle, remember, is back in junior hockey by rule because he was only an emergency recall.)
"It's been good to get some guys back," Okposo said. "Obviously with Jack being back, it's given us a lot of balance and a lot more scoring threat. Every time he's on the ice, it takes pressure off Ryan and adds another element of scoring."
Okposo was the seventh overall pick in 2006, collecting 369 points in 529 games for the Islanders over nine seasons. The Sabres' big free agent addition entered Friday as the club's leading scorer with 21 points, including a team-high nine goals.
He said prior to this one there would be some odd emotion to the game but that it would be business as usual when the puck drops.
"It's tough to see them struggle. But on the other side of the ledger, I'm here now and this is what I focus on," Okposo said. "When I talk to some of those guys, I ask them how they're doing and hopefully their spirits stay up. Guys go through that but I battled with them and grew up with them."
Okposo is learning about Eichel after landing on the 20-year-old's line. Remember, Eichel was at the World Cup and not around for much of training camp. Then he got hurt. Only in the last couple of weeks has Okposo had regular looks at him.
"I've learned how much of a gamebreaker he is," Okposo said. "His explosiveness is something you hear a lot about and you can see it when you play against him. But when you play with him, you noticed it every game and he's capable of beating a guy every time. He can blow right by somebody and make a play because he's so strong on his skates. He creates so much space, you don't have to help him out. You trust he'll make a play."
The Sabres didn't make many plays of note in the first two periods Friday. The were sleepwalking through much of the first 20 minutes and by the end of 40 minutes they had given up 30 shots on goal. Robin Lehner was sharp, making several point-blank saves to keep Buffalo in range.
The Sabres' defense was having particular trouble in this one. As odd as it sounds, this group misses the gone-to-junior Brendan Guhle. Veterans Josh Gorges and Dmitry Kulikov struggled mightily at times, with Kulikov needing to really pick up his game to make the analytics lovers out there forget about Mark Pysyk.
Okposo makes his return to Barclays Center next Friday night with the Sabres in what figures to be an emotional night for him.
"It's a very passionate fan base there that's been through a lot," Okposo said. "It will be a special moment for me."
The Islanders got the old Nassau Coliseum and Barclays really rocking at times the last three years. Their goal celebration was a vestige of WWE and it's electric. Maybe KeyBank Center can be like that someday.
"That was one of the coolest parts about playing on the Island, especially the last couple of years," Okposo said. "When you'd hear, 'Yes, Yes, Yes!' in the Coliseum in the playoffs or a big divisional game and they got that going, it gave you goosebumps every time."