By Daniel Friedman
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With 19 points, he has more than any other American skater. Among NHL leaders, only Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos and Henrik Sedin have more.
He is Kyle Okposo, the former No. 7 overall pick in the 2006 draft.
Yes, that Kyle Okposo.
By itself, the fact that Okposo is the Isles’ top point producer would generally be enough of a surprise, considering they also employ John Tavares and Thomas Vanek. But that said, Okposo’s meteoric rise has taken things to a different level entirely. He is finally reaching — and, let’s be honest, in a lot of ways surpassing — his potential.
Okposo has appeared on the score sheet in 11 of the Islanders’ 15 games, and perhaps even more impressive is the fact that he has an NHL-high seven multi-point games. He’s also tied for third in the league with 14 assists, which is surprising considering he has been viewed in the past as more of a sniper than playmaker.
Currently in the third year of a five-year, $14 million contract he signed back on May 25, 2011, Okposo’s improvement almost certainly has nothing to do with impending free agency. What is worth noting, however, is that it’s an Olympic year.
A few months from now, the world’s best will flock to Sochi, Russia in a quest for international ice hockey supremacy. Looking to build off their silver medal performance at the 2010 Games in Vancouver, the United States will once again field a talented squad and Okposo has every intention of being there.
This past summer, Okposo was invited to Team USA’s Olympic Orientation Camp, just as he was in 2009. When asked about that experience, the Minnesota native was candid.
“I still remember getting that phone call that I didn’t make the team by David Poile,” Okposo said. “He said I was kind of on the fence. It was tough, but they fielded a really good team in 2010.”
Make no mistake, Okposo would like the outcome to be different this time around.
“I’ve watched the Olympics for my whole life and every time that you see the ‘USA’ sweater go on, it’s special,” he said. “I have represented my country and been fortunate enough to do it a number of times in different events, but I think it’d be another step up for the Olympics, for sure.”
As Okposo alluded to, he’s been on the international stage before, playing in three World Championship tournaments and collecting 11 points in 23 games. He also skated in two World Junior Championships, helping the U.S. obtain a bronze in 2006 and finishing with six points in six games the following year.
I’ll be honest: I drew up a mock Team USA Olympic roster this summer and Okposo wasn’t on it. I think if you asked those among the USA Hockey hierarchy, they would have still felt Okposo was “on the fence.”
That was then. Now, he’s making one hell of a case for an Olympic roster spot. Racking up 19 points in 15 games to start your season will garner attention, not to mention serious consideration, from Poile and Co.
What began in the first round of last season’s playoffs has carried over into this season: Okposo has been downright superb and has done so in the face of a ton of adversity. It wasn’t long ago that he was in the midst of a harsh scoring slump and fans were clamoring for him to be traded.
If you thought that was bad, keep reading; it gets worse.
Coming off a career year in 2009-10, when Okposo amassed 52 points and was on the cusp of becoming a rising star, he suffered a shoulder injury and was sidelined for four months. Despite recording 45 points the following season, it was obvious he had lost a step.
Okposo got off to another poor start to begin the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign, notching just five points in 20 games. However, he had a strong finish with eight points in the last 10 regular season contests and four in the six playoff games against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
If there were any questions as to whether Okposo’s emergence was a fluke (and there certainly were), they have been answered. He said he has worked relentlessly to perfect his craft and, at this juncture, that effort has paid off immensely.
“I think it’s the experience,” Okposo said. “You just have to find ways that you’re gonna be successful and figure that out. You have to try and find ways to get to the next level and I thought I tried to do that throughout the year last year, and this summer also.”
Are his toe-drag experiments well-documented and incredibly frustrating? Yes. Is it fair to suggest that perhaps he wouldn’t have 19 points if he wasn’t playing with Tavares? Yes and no, because while he does benefit from playing on a line with a Hart Trophy finalist, he has amassed those points playing on several lines over the first 15 games.
Taking all those factors into account, has Okposo been a better, smarter, more polished hockey player? Absolutely. He’s in his sixth full season in the NHL and “Okposo 6.0” is eons ahead of the previous five versions.
There is no doubt the Olympics are a motivator for him, as would be the case with most players, but the fact that he’s piling up the points on the heels of a compelling postseason performance suggests that there’s more to it. Okposo is the real deal and, though it’s easy to pour cold water and say it’s early, there’s a sufficient amount of supporting evidence to void that theory.
Of course, the best thing Okposo can do to quiet down the naysayers is to keep plugging away.
“He’s gotta work,” Islanders head coach Jack Capuano said. “You gotta continue to work if you want to have success. I think his game has picked up because his feet are moving, he’s in constant motion, he’s playing the body and playing physical. Hopefully, that will continue. You’re gonna have success if you maintain that work ethic and right now that’s what he’s doing.”
USA Hockey will announce it’s 2014 Olympic roster at the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day. Okposo has until then to convince the powers that be to give him a spot. As he’s learned first-hand, that’s not going to happen easily.
There are a lot of quality players he is competing with, including James van Riemsdyk, Max Pacioretty, Brandon Saad, R.J. Umberger, Alex Galchenyuk, Blake Wheeler and T.J. Oshie. Each would likewise want nothing more than to wear the red, white and blue.
Back in July, most people would’ve given Okposo little chance of emerging from that group as an Olympian, but it’s November now and an entirely different story. If the decision had to be made today, it would be very difficult to pass him over.
Odds are Okposo won’t be in the running for the Art Ross Trophy when the rosters are determined, but if he continues to play with confidence and produce, he’ll be every bit worthy of representing his country.
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter at @DFriedmanWFAN
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