Kyle Okposo's Cup victory with Panthers earns Sabres a higher pick in NHL draft


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Former Sabres captain Kyle Okposo requested a trade to the Florida Panthers in March to pursue the Stanley Cup. Associated Press

Kyle Okposo faced a painstaking decision in the weeks leading up to the NHL’s trade deadline in March.

The 36-year-old captain of the Buffalo Sabres could have played out the string on another season outside the Stanley Cup Playoffs or leave his family for up to 3 1/2 months to try to win the trophy he’s coveted since his days playing roller hockey in his parents’ driveway.

Okposo took the leap and doing so helped one of the league’s beloved figures win hockey’s ultimate prize. He, along with former Sabres players Sam Reinhart, Evan Rodrigues, Brandon Montour and Dmitry Kulikov, will have his name etched on the Stanley Cup following the Florida Panthers’ Game 7 win over the Edmonton Oilers on Monday night.

“I kind of took a leap of faith 3 1/2 months ago, and this is what it was for,” Okposo said on the ESPN/ABC broadcast.

Myles Fee, the Panthers’ video coach, spent three seasons on the Sabres’ coaching staff from 2019-22, and Rick Dudley, a special advisor to Florida General Manager Bill Zito, played six seasons for Buffalo and coached the Sabres from 1989-92 before he began a long career as an executive. Dudley’s permanent residence remains in Lewiston, and he frequents Sabres games in KeyBank Center to scout for his role with the Panthers. Former Sabres winger Rasmus Asplund was one of the Panthers’ Black Aces, a group of extra players who practice and train with the team throughout the playoffs.

Okposo was the third Panthers player to hoist the Stanley Cup, following captain Aleksander Barkov and Game 7 hero, goalie Sergei Bobrovsky. Then, Okposo celebrated on the ice at Amerant Bank Arena with his wife, Danielle, and their children, while Western New York’s hockey fans watched from afar and wondered how this batch of Panthers became the latest former Sabres to win the trophy that Buffalo has wanted since its NHL franchise’s inception in 1970.

There’s one minor consolation for the Sabres and their fans. The conditional seventh-round draft pick General Manager Kevyn Adams acquired for Okposo upgraded to a fifth-round selection with Florida winning the Cup. Now, Buffalo owns at least one pick in every round of the NHL draft, which will be held Friday and Saturday in Las Vegas’ Sphere.

Okposo also walked away with a $500,000 bonus for winning the Stanley Cup, an incentive that he asked the Sabres to include in the one-year contract that he signed last June. The Panthers must foot the bill, and it will count against their salary cap next season. Okposo told reporters at the time that he planned to decide after the 2023-24 season whether he wanted to continue an NHL career that’s now spanned 17 seasons and 1,051 regular-season games. If Okposo walks away, no one should be surprised to see him running a team someday.

The scene must have been difficult to stomach for Sabres fans who haven’t witnessed their team in the playoffs since 2011. Reinhart was one of the franchise’s pillars from 2014, when he was drafted second overall following the first of Buffalo’s consecutive tanking seasons, until the summer of 2021, when he was traded to the Panthers for goalie prospect Devon Levi and a first-round draft pick that Buffalo used to select Jiri Kulich. Reinhart had informed the Sabres that he was not interested in signing another contract with the team after multiple general managers chose to not give him a long-term deal.

Panthers center Sam Reinhart, left, scores as Oilers center Leon Draisaitl attempts to defend during Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final on Monday. Associated Press

Reinhart scored the game-winning goal in Game 7 to cap a remarkable 2023-24 in which he had career-highs in goals (57) and points (94), and he was second on the team with nine goals during the postseason. He’ll be the top available free agent if the Panthers are unable to sign him before Monday.

Their success, as well as that of Montour and Rodrigues, is a reminder that Buffalo’s had players throughout the drought who are capable of excelling when the Stanley Cup is on the line. Ryan O’Reilly, Zach Bogosian and Jack Eichel also won after leaving. The Sabres failed to build necessary depth around those players, and the franchise’s progress was hindered by the impatience of ownership, which has fired seven head coaches and three general managers since their last playoff appearance.

Montour was acquired by former GM Jason Botterill at the trade deadline in 2019 because the right-shot defenseman was tailor-made for the way then-coach Phil Housley wanted the Sabres to play. Housley was fired a few weeks later and replaced by Ralph Krueger, whose system and preferences for that position did not fit Montour’s strengths.

Montour was traded by the Sabres ahead of the deadline during the Covid-abbreviated season in 2021 and quickly became an invaluable member of the Panthers. He also will receive a lucrative contract from the Panthers or another team as he approaches unrestricted free agency. Rodrigues faced a similar issue in Buffalo, as he requested a trade in the weeks before the deadline in 2020 because he was a healthy scratch under Krueger.