Dec 23, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA; New York Islanders right wing Kyle Okposo (21) skates with the puck in the third period against the Detroit Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena. New York won 3-0. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
The 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi are around the corner.
In less than two months, Team USA will begin its bid for the country’s first gold medal since the “Miracle on Ice” team defeated the Soviet Union in the medal round of the 1980 Lake Placid Games, then went on to defeat Finland in the gold medal game. After coming so close in 2010—Team USA dropping a heart-breaker to Canada in overtime of the gold medal game in Vancouver—America’s hockey team is set to take the next step upon the podium.
However, the final step before Team USA leaves for Sochi is head coach Dan Bylsma (Pittsburgh Penguins) and general manager David Poile (Nashville Predators) finalizing their 25-man roster by December 31.
“There are about six or seven [forwards] who are locks to make the team,” Bylsma said of his roster. “The focus of the scouting and the watching of games falls on that next group of five, six, seven, and we’re watching them almost nightly.”One of those forwards in the latter group happens to be Kyle Okposo, the New York Islanders forward and assistant captain from St. Paul, Minnesota.
Two days before Team USA announces its final roster for the Sochi Games, Okposo is still auditioning for his first Olympic appearance. After being bypassed in 2010 when Team USA won a silver medal, Okposo has “put himself in that group we’re paying attention to,” according to Bylsma, and rightfully so. Seven years pro, Kyle has evolved his game to earn the opportunity to don the country’s red, white and blue in February.
Okposo was the Islanders’ top prospect, touted for his ability to create opportunities through his aggressive style of play, so there was plenty of buildup and anticipation to get a glimpse of the team’s 7th-overall 2006 NHL Entry Draft selection.After recording 51 points in 58 games at the University of Minnesota, and 28 points in 35 games for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, a then-19-year-old Okposo arrived to the scene of an injury-ravaged Islanders hockey club, a “challenge” he believed he was ready for. With all the hype surrounding him, he impressed.
The American-born prospect scored 2 goals (including a game-winning goal against the New Jersey Devils) and added 3 assists in his first 9 NHL games, setting him up for further success in his first two full seasons with the Islanders. With 39 points in 2008-09 and 52 points in 2009-10, Okposo became a centerpiece to the Islanders offense, and his relentless play on the puck quickly turned him into a fan-favorite amongst Long Island’s faithful. But, even after a hot start in 2009 (Kyle recorded a 6-21-27 stat line before New Year’s Eve), Team USA passed him over.
A shoulder injury before the start of the 2010-11 season forced Kyle to miss more than half of his third professional campaign, and his return to the team wasn’t as impressive. A slow start to the season saw Kyle score in only one of his first eighteen games—when he netted two goals—and the trend would carry over through the following two seasons. Known as a slow-starter in Minnesota—after recording three points in his first game of the 2007-08 season, he went on an 8-game scoreless streak—Kyle took 16 games to score his first goal of the 2011-12 season, and 20 games to score his second goal of the truncated 2013 season.
The intensity that Kyle had always played with was still there, but the production didn’t return until he made his postseason debut at the end of last season. Kyle produced three goals—one shy of his 2013 season total—and an assist in six games before the Penguins eliminated the Islanders.
This season, Kyle has picked up right where he left off in May.
Through 40 games this season, the Islanders winger has already surpassed his 48-game total by thirteen points. His total (37 points) currently has him tied for 2nd in points amongst U.S. National Team-eligible players in the NHL. It’s the Islanders alternate captain’s first “hot start” since the last time the Olympics coincided with his NHL campaign, and Bylsma has taken notice.
“Kyle’s had a very good start to this season and that’s something he’s not necessarily known for. So he’s put himself in that group we’re paying attention to,” Bylsma said in reference to the forwards currently being scouted by he and Poile. Bylsma has had a firsthand look at Okposo during his tenure with Pittsburgh, and Poile has helped construct U.S. World Hockey Championship teams that have featured Okposo, who has played 23 games for Team USA on the international stage.
The combination of Okposo’s offensive ability, gritty play, leadership skill and international experience fits the mold of Team USA. Okposo has demonstrated that he can play in all three zones as hard, if not harder, than any of the players that are considered “locks” to make the roster, and has proven that he can play alongside some of the best players in the world. Kyle Okposo has earned his shot to become a first-time Olympian.
Christopher Triantafilis is a staff writer at Eyes on Isles, and also runs the blog Islanders Op-Timism.