UPDATE: Per ESPN’s Craig Custance, the Team USA roster was finalized last night. Anyone want to wager a guess about which player earned himself some extra consideration after last night’s performance in which he recorded three points—including the game-winning goal—and was generally the game’s dominant force?
The 2014 Winter Olympics are fast approaching. With that comes an increase in talk about which players will represent the United States of America in the world’s greatest hockey tournament come Feb. 13, when the U.S. faces off against Slovakia at 7:30 a.m. ET.
Team USA’s roster will be announced by head coach Dan Bylsma and general manager David Poile on Jan. 1 after the 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic. And while several American forwards are considered locks to make the squad—guys like Patrick Kane, Zach Parise, and Bobby Ryan—there are a few players on the outside looking in.
Among the few sitting squarely on the bubble is Kyle Okposo, right-winger and assistant captain for the New York Islanders. (He of the 14 goals and 23 assists in 40 games played this season, for reference.)
Obviously, the final decision is up to Bylsma and Poile; it’s their squad, so the player choices will be based on their design for the style of play and quality of character they want on the ice and in the locker room in Sochi. Statistics and intangibles will no doubt both be taken into account as they construct their roster.
With that being said, there’s not much more Okposo can do before the official Team USA roster announcement to improve his chances of being selected to represent his country at the 2014 Sochi Games.
Okposo’s point total (37) ranks him 16th in the NHL in scoring this year, second among American-born players. Kane (53 points) is the only player ahead of Okposo. And as a reminder, Okposo is now tied with the soon-to-be-$8-million-cap-hit-man Phil Kessel (37 points in 41 games), and ahead of Joe Pavelski (36-in-39) and Ryan (35-in-41) on the list of American scoring leaders this year.
I’m not a coach or a general manager, but you’re not going to not put names like Kane, Kessel, Pavelski and Ryan in the lineup. Isn’t it then logical to assume that Okposo should find himself wearing a Team USA jersey too?
In addition to the main numbers that generally qualify a player for national team consideration (goals, assists, number of American flag-inspired articles of clothing he owns, etc.), Okposo had also been performing well according to the advanced metrics.
His goals-for percentage is 52.4 and his goals-for relative percentage is +12.8; basically, he’s been on the ice for more goals scored than goals against, and him being on the ice means the Islanders perform approximately 12 percent better in that category than when he’s on the bench.
In addition, Okposo’s corsi-for percentage is 50.8 and his corsi-for relative percentage is +3.9; he’s possessing the puck at above league average and when he’s skating, the Isles out-chance their opponents at a higher rate than when he’s sitting.
One last stat: Okposo has been on the ice for 33 Islanders goals this year, a number better than any other player on the roster. So, you know. (H/T ExtraSkater.com, as per usual.)
In short, he effectively increases his team’s scoring. To the Team USA brain trust, these should be good things when considering an Olympic hopeful. I can’t read Bylsma’s or Poile’s minds but I’d assume they’re looking for players who make their teammates better and put the puck in the net. In case they haven’t noticed, Okposo does both of those things pretty well.
The knock on Okposo this season has been that his production is the result of being paired with John Tavares on the Islanders’ top line, which is a lazy assessment. Seriously, just look at these clips. I’ve named them ”laser show” and “beast mode” because creative license is fun.
Granted, the national hockey media doesn’t necessarily follow the Isles game-in and game-out, but asserting that Okposo isn’t a good player just because he plays with Tavares isn’t a sound argument. Related: teams usually put their best players on the top line. So.
Should Okposo be penalized because he’s putting up great numbers alongside one of the NHL’s best players? Should coaches, general managers and media members throw his stats out the window because he logs ice time in the same ratio as a 2013 Hart Trophy finalist? Should Okposo’s achievements this season count for nothing because “Okposo-passes-to-Tavares-he-shoots-he-SCORES!” is a thing?
The short story is that Okposo is playing the best hockey of his career—picking up right where he left off in the playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, which I’m sure Bylsma is has flashbacks about (I mean, remembers quite well)—and is deserving of a Team USA roster slot.
The other names in consideration for the final few spots on the roster along with Okposo include T.J. Oshie, Paul Stastny, and Derek Stepan. A quick comparison of their point totals—37, 32, 24 and 24, respectively—shows that Okposo is having the best season from a scoring standpoint.
Scoring isn’t the be-all, end-all of a player’s résumé, but it doesn’t hurt to be the top scorer on the short list of Olympic hopefuls. (Check out Rich Dis-Rodrigues’s piece from yesterday for a more detailed comparison.)
What’s more, Okposo has been making better use of his agressiveness and physicality this year, making him a true force on the ice. Even though international hockey is played on a larger ice surface, I doubt it would negatively affect Okposo to the point where his size and speed are no longer major factors in a game.
Islanders fans have seen his hard-nosed style of play translate to goals for his team more often this season than at any other point during Okposo’s career. Against teams like Canada, Sweden, and Russia, where the skill disparity is clearly apparent, size and speed are key elements; Okposo possesses both in spades.
If the goal of the United States is to field a lineup consisting of the top 25 American players, Okposo certainly belongs on that list. He’s at the top of his game—and still improving—and has the type of grit and desire that often lead to inspired performances by a country playing for pride on the world stage. (Just look at last night’s game in Minnesota where Okposo played with the type of fire Isles fans expected to see from a man playing in front of a hometown crowd.)
Okposo is on record as saying that playing for the United States would be a dream come true, and his infectious attitude and work ethic would make him a perfect addition to a deep stable of forwards on Team USA’s roster. (Also, having him on the team means we get the chance to tweet this picture a million more times.)
Bylsma already has Okposo on his radar, which is a good sign for the 25-year-old winger. By being named to the U.S. Olympic team, Okposo would almost certainly turn a few more heads on the international stage.
Thoughts? Questions? Comments? Concerns? Am I asking too many questions? Sound off in the comments section below, or follow me on Twitter (@MichaelWillhoft) so we can talk about Okposo’s Olympic chances.
UPDATE: Now that he’s all but kicked in the door at Team USA headquarters, I’m thinking that discussion is a moot point but yeah let’s still talk about it anyway.