'My No. 1 goal is to win a Stanley Cup': How Kyle Okposo is approaching his new role with the Panthers

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Kyle Okposo knew it all in Buffalo. Through nearly eight seasons, Okposo set a tone for the Sabres. He was a guy with the answers.

Then Okposo was traded to Florida — for defenseman Calle Sjalin and a conditional 2024 seventh-round pick — on March 8.

Suddenly, he had nothing but questions.

“It’s so many little things,” Okposo told ESPN. “Like, what do you wear on the plane here? Do you wear ties? Where do you sit on the bus? All those details you don’t have to think about when you’re somewhere for a really long time. You feel like a young guy again now, which is fine; which is good. But it’s a whirlwind. I was just in one place for years. I’ve never done an in-season trade like this before. You’re trying to find a rhythm. It’s new. And it’s hard.”

This is the trade deadline’s messy aftermath. The human side.

When the months and weeks and days filled with breathless commentary and speculation about who’s going where finally ends, the players swapped by their teams have only just begun to figure out their new normal.

In Okposo’s case, it began with phone calls. Dozens of them.

“Everything just starts blowing up,” he said. “There’s text messages [first] and then you start to get calls from the people in the organization here in Florida. You’re answering Florida numbers, but you don’t really know who they are. You’re just talking to different people, having little conversations to get to further conversations about logistics, and then once the logistical things are handled, then you get to take a moment. And I went to talk to my kids. But your phone never stops ringing throughout the whole day.”

It was less than 18 hours later that Okposo said goodbye to his wife and four (still bemused) children in Buffalo to catch a ride to Florida. The Panthers were hosting the Calgary Flames, and Okposo wanted to be in the building.

“I had a flight at 6 a.m. [on March 9], landed at 1:30 p.m. after I was delayed in Atlanta,” he recalled. “Then I drop my stuff off [at the hotel], go immediately to the [rink], work out, meet the guys, and then go have a glass of wine after the game and you’re in bed at like 1 a.m. So, it was just a long day, a long process. And I feel like I haven’t really caught my breath yet.”

OKPOSO IS THRILLED to be a Florida Panther. The veteran had no trade protection in his one-year, $2.5 million deal, but Sabres’ GM Kevyn Adams was cognizant of where Okposo would like to land if a move were to materialize and Florida was it.

Adams made the trade happen. His emotional post-deadline press conference revealed how hard Adams took it though, seeing Okposo shipped off after almost a decade of service to the Sabres.

“Kyle Okposo, he’s just an unbelievable person,” Adams said. “I have a lot of respect for people that are selfless in this game, and what he’s given this organization, his heart and soul. When I think about some of the struggles we’ve been through together and the care he had, that’s a unique relationship. I want to thank him.”

Okposo saw Adams’ comments and admitted it was “hard” bowing out in Buffalo. The Sabres simply couldn’t gain any momentum this season as they tried to turn a corner and end their 12-year playoff drought. Okposo wanted to be part of the solution. But he left with head held high.

“I put absolutely everything that I had into Buffalo and into the city, the team, the organization,” he said. “I gave everything I had and I hope that the guys there can take some things that I hopefully taught them and apply it to the future. But one thing that I am not naive to is that there is not one person in the history of professional sports that has outlasted an organization. Organizations will always move on, they will move forward. That’s just how it goes. Somebody told me that really early in my career and I’ve never forgot that.”

The Panthers have Okposo’s full attention now. Florida was honest with Okposo before the trade about what to expect and how he’d fill a role. They are the league’s best team after all, and have an established, robust bottom-six forward rotation with Nick Cousins, Ryan Lomberg, Eetu Luostarinen and Evan Rodrigues. Okposo — who’s collected 242 goals and 614 points in 1,047 games to date — would have his chance, though, and with a playoff contender no less.

He’s ready to take that in.

“My No. 1 goal is to win a Stanley Cup,” Okposo said. “You know, early in my career, early in my life, I was seeking validation from outside sources, and I don’t really need that anymore to be honest with you. I am who I am. I know what kind of person I am. And on the ice, I know what kind of player I am. I know I’m not 25 anymore, but I can still play. I can still do some things particularly well, and I think that I can help the group. The organization has extremely high standards and there’s no secret what the expectations are in this room for the organization. And that’s an exciting thing.”

There has been discussion on the other side about how he’ll contribute, as well.

“He’s a veteran guy that wants to fit in and understands the team dynamic,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. “We wanted to get him in some games, get him a little bit comfortable. I think we practice a little differently here. There’s just a lot of new for him here. So [we’ve been] discussing some of the new, some quickness that can come back into his game, some physicality that could come back into his game.”

Okposo is willing to make adjustments there, too; he can add it to the list. Fortunately there was a built-in support system waiting for him down south. Sam Reinhart was a long-time teammate of Okposo’s in Buffalo turned best friend. And Okposo’s played with a handful of other guys in the room as well. That familiarity makes a transition less jarring. Because in other respects, Okposo is still flying blind.

“I’m trying to figure out a place to live right now,” he said. When you land at the airport when you come home [from a road game], you want to go home; you don’t want to go to another hotel. Especially for me, I’m 35 years old; I’ll be 36 here soon. I’m used to going back to see my family. So that part has been difficult, but it’s part of it. I’m just digging in. I know why I’m doing this and my family knows why I’m doing it. I think my new teammates know why I’m doing this. I’m doing it for no other reason than to be successful on the ice and to be a good guy in the locker room. So through all of that logistical stuff, I have a further goal in mind.”

That’s the message Okposo sends back to his kids. It was a heart-wrenching choice to leave them and wife Danielle up in Buffalo; there’s palpable ache in his voice just discussing it.

“They’re okay. They know that I’m going to be gone for a while,” he said. “And they’re going to come down [to visit]. But it’s hard. I try to talk to them as much as I can, I FaceTime them. But it’s hard not being there for the experiences every day. My oldest is 10, and there’s different things that are happening at school with friends, with her dance and just little things that you miss as a dad. But they’re doing okay. They know it’s temporary and you know, they don’t quite understand the full picture, but I will be back to them soon.”

Not too soon, though. Florida looks primed for a long spring that could take them back to a consecutive Stanley Cup Final. The Panthers lost there a year ago — as verifiable underdogs — to the Vegas Golden Knights. If the Panthers get there again, it’ll be with a target on their back the whole way.

Okposo is ready for the ride. He hasn’t played in a postseason tilt since 2016 with the New York Islanders, when they — coincidentally — topped Florida in the first round before falling to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second.

It’s been eight long years since Okposo has experienced the emotional weight of a playoff game. He shouldn’t have to wait much longer.

And then he’ll have one more answer — that it was worth it, right? All those hard days and tough choices it took to chase the dream?

“I still remember the butterflies that you get night before the playoffs,” he said. “If you’re [starting on] the second night, you’re watching the first night at just how hard they’re going. And that first round is just murder to get out of. It’s a ton of fun, and it’s all consuming. It’s just there’s nothing else that matters, but hockey. And that’s an exciting thing to be a part of. I just can’t wait for that feeling again.”

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