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Super 16: Career year marks crossroad for Okposo

Friday, 03.21.2014 / 2:00 AM
Corey Masisak  - NHL.com Staff Writer
This has been a lost season for the New York Islanders, one that began with hope of building off a return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2013, but is ending with losses piling up and more question marks about the lineup built around superstar John Tavares than when the campaign commenced.

There has been one potentially big development for the future of the Islanders in 2013-14, and that is the play of Kyle Okposo. Long considered a gifted but inconsistent forward with potential, Okposo has put together the best season of his career with 69 points in 69 games.

Though he has spent a lot of his career with the Islanders on the second line, he moved into the spot next to Tavares and either Matt Moulson or Thomas Vanek this season, and that trio proved to be one of the most productive in the NHL. The question moving forward is simple: Will 2013-14 be remembered as a breakout season for Okposo, or a career season?

Finding comparable players for the 25-year-old Okposo isn't easy. He spent five full seasons in the NHL as a complementary player before becoming a primary weapon for the Islanders this season. He had 24 goals in 2011-12, but that was fueled partly by a shooting percentage of 15.8, more than five percentage points better than his career average.

The accompanying table includes of a group of players who spent at least two full seasons in the NHL before having a breakout season between the ages of 24 and 27 in the past dozen seasons. Several of these seasons happened in 2005-06, in part because of the rule changes that led to more scoring and because some of them might have done it in 2004-05 if not for the lockout.

BREAKOUT?
EARLY YEARS
BREAKOUT NEXT 3 YEARS
PLAYER 'BREAKOUT' YEAR
GP
Pts/G Age* Pts/G GP Pts/G
Todd Bertuzzi 2001-02 479 0.52 26 1.18 233 0.98
Jonathan Cheechoo 2005-06 147 0.43 25 1.13 211 0.64
Shawn Horcoff 2005-06 268 0.41 27 0.92 213 0.72
Brian Gionta 2005-06 166 0.39 27 1.09 224 0.68
Justin Williams 2005-06 258 0.52 24 0.93 163 0.68
Henrik Zetterberg 2005-06 140 0.62 25 1.10 215 1.08
Mike Cammalleri 2006-07 139 0.57 24 0.99 209 0.86
James Neal 2011-12 234 0.58 24 1.01 85** 1.00
Tyler Bozak 2013-14 192 0.55 27 0.89 ??? ???
Kyle Okposo 2013-14 319 0.58 25 1.00 ??? ???
*Age on Feb. 1 of that season
** Next two seasons for Neal

It is a mixed group of players. Some built off their breakout seasons to become consistent stars. Others struggled to reach that level again. Jonathan Cheechoo has become the answer to a trivia question: Who led the League in goals in 2005-06? Which typically is followed by, "Oh yeah, remember that guy?"

How much of Okposo's gains are a product of playing with one of the best players in the world? He does have 10 points in the 10 games since Tavares was lost for the season to a knee injury. His skill set as a playmaker could also work in his favor, as future point totals might be less affected by shooting slumps provided he continues to create chances as consistently as he has this season and near the end of the 2012-13 season.

Okposo is shooting 14.3 percent this season, which is the second-highest of his career. The Islanders are shooting 10.5 percent when Okposo is on the ice, which is a little high (the team has been at 8.5 percent with Tavares on the ice in each of the previous two seasons).  

The Islanders also have to help Okposo and Tavares out. Moulson and Vanek are gone (but are unrestricted free agents, so either could in theory return). They look set at center with Tavares, Frans Nielsen and Ryan Strome, but there are plenty of questions beyond Okposo for the other top three spots on the wing.

Young forwards like Anders Lee and Brock Nelson could develop into players worthy of top-six placement on a potential playoff team, something Josh Bailey and Michael Grabner have failed to do. If the Islanders keep their 2014 first-round pick instead of sending it to the Buffalo Sabres to complete the Vanek trade, a forward taken in the top few picks could contribute immediately, though the Islanders have been conservative with teenagers in recent seasons. A veteran free agent (or two) could end up being the solution.

Moulson was a consistent scorer for the Islanders and a trusted sidekick for Tavares. The goals he provided will not be replaced easily, but Okposo can be more than that. He just has to prove this season is the start of a new level for him and not a temporary spike.

DISCLAIMER: While the Super 16 is NHL.com's weekly power rankings, it focuses more on the "power" than the "rankings" when determining the order. It's not always going to look like the League standings and likely will take more of a long view than a short one. If two teams are close the tiebreaker almost always is this: If the two teams started a seven-game series tonight, who would prevail? Stop by to see where your favorite team ranks, but stay for the information. Also, statistics and team records are through the games on Wednesday.

1. Boston Bruins (47-17-5) LW: 4

The Bruins became the second team this season to win 10 straight games (check out Dan Ryan's graphical look [http://www.stanleycupofchowder.com/2014/3/19/5526950/a-graphical-look-at-the-bruins-ten-game-winning-streak] at the streak at Stanley Cup of Chowder), joining the Anaheim Ducks (who also have an eight-game streak as well). Boston needed three weeks to figure out how to still be what people expect of the Bruins when defenseman Dennis Seidenberg was lost for the season to a knee injury.

From Dec. 28 to Jan. 19 the Bruins went 4-6-1 and allowed 29 goals (2.64 per game). Since losing the 2013 Stanley Cup Final rematch to the Chicago Blackhawks, Boston is 17-2-2 and has allowed 42 goals (2.00 per game).

Scroll down a bit. See those teams ranked second through eighth? The Bruins have to face a maximum of one of them in the first three rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and that team has to win two series for that happen. The non-division winners in the Western Conference almost certainly would have to face three of those top eight just to get to the Bruins. 

MUST READ: Patrice Bergeron's latest blog entry for ESPN Boston has some interesting nuggets about the 2014 Sochi Olympics and getting adjusted to North America and the NHL schedule again.

2. San Jose Sharks (45-18-7) LW: 2

The Sharks put another goalie in a shooting gallery Tuesday when Roberto Luongo had to make 52 saves in a 3-2 win for the Florida Panthers. That's the sixth time this season San Jose has totaled 50 shots on goal or more, which according to hockey-reference.com is two more than any team since the 1987-88 season. As Kevin Kurz of CSN Bay Area writes, the Sharks haven't been particularly successful when lighting up the SOG spot on the scoreboard.

NHL teams are 10-5-7 when recording at least 50 shots on goal this season, but that leads to a larger point. The Sharks aren't alone in being trigger happy. Check out the chart below. The 2013-14 season already has eclipsed the past 10 in number of 50-plus games. There were 25 such occurrences in the five seasons prior to the rule changes after the lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season.

So what's the deal? Is the high number because more teams are embracing the "possession rules" theory and emphasizing shot attempts? Are more teams settling back into a prevent-type defense when playing with the lead? Is it a fluke? Whatever the reasons, the Sharks are leading a League-wide charge to pepper opposing goaltenders.

MUST READ: Patrick Dermody from Fear The Fin takes an in-depth look at how the Sharks get after it on the forecheck.

3. St. Louis Blues (47-15-7) LW: 1

The Blues have collected at least a point in every game since the start of February in which they score a goal (11-0-1). They've also been shut out three times, and are going to be without forward Vladimir Tarasenko until sometime in the playoffs. Though the Blues have made several changes to the roster in the past 13 months looking for more offensive creativity, the development of Tarasenko and forward Jaden Schwartz has been the team's biggest boon.

MUST READ: Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch writes about 10 reasons to love the Blues' chances.

4. Los Angeles Kings (38-25-6) LW: 4

The Kings lost three straight games where they had more than 60 percent of the shot attempts in all situations and when the score was close at even strength. Goalie Jonathan Quick, who had allowed six goals in his previous six games, yielded seven in two losses. Los Angeles has scored 29 goals in 10 games since the Olympic break. If the Kings continue to score 2.9 goals per game, they might be playing for a long time after the regular season concludes.

MUST READ: Curtis Zupke writes about Marian Gaborik trying to settle in and help the Kings score more goals.

5. Chicago Blackhawks (40-15-15) LW: 3

Right wing Patrick Kane's injury could be a lot worse, and if he's ready to go at the start of the playoffs the Blackhawks probably won't miss a beat. They might settle on a No. 2 center by then, especially if Teuvo Teravainen walks across Lake Michigan and turns some of it into a product fit for Prairie State Winery.

The Blackhawks beat the Blues on Wednesday, which means there won't be a hundred stories about how they didn't do that this season if the teams meet in the second round.

MUST READ: Is it possible that Chicago coach Joel Quenneville purposely was not looking for the best matchups in some games against likely first-round opponent Colorado this season? Jennifer Lute Costella of Second City Hockey has some compelling evidence.

6. Anaheim Ducks (45-17-7) LW: 6

Another top team with a key injury, the Ducks will miss defenseman Cam Fowler and it might cost them a chance to win the Pacific Division. The addition of Stephane Robidas on the blue line could help offset the loss, and it could give defenseman Luca Sbisa a chance to prove he deserves a sweater in his locker once everyone is healthy again.

MUST READ: Kyle Nicolas of Anaheim Calling writes about the Ducks' special teams.

7. Pittsburgh Penguins (45-19-4) LW: 7

The second half of Pittsburgh's rivalry week didn't go quite as well as the first part. Not having forwards James Neal and Chris Kunitz for back-to-back losses to the Philadelphia Flyers certainly did not help matters. Forward Lee Stempniak does have six points in seven games since arriving from the Calgary Flames, and the potential returns of defenseman Kris Letang and forward Beau Bennett could further aid the offense.

MUST READ: Depth continues to be a problem for the Penguins, writes Jesse Marshall of Faceoff-Factor.

8. Colorado Avalanche (44-20-6) LW: 8

After winning six of seven to move into second place in the Central Division, the Avalanche have started leaking goals. They've lost three of four and allowed 17 goals in those defeats. Each of their three goaltenders has played a part, starting one of the losses, though the past two games actually might boost Semyon Varlamov's chances of being a Vezina Trophy finalist. 

The Kane injury could help Colorado earn home-ice advantage in the first round, but the Avalanche have six of their final 12 games against top-seven teams on this list, while the Blackhawks have three such games.

MUST READ: Justin Bourne of The Backhand Shelf writes that people shouldn't forget players earn offensive assignments like prime zone starts and power-play time and shouldn't be docked for doing so.

9. Tampa Bay Lightning (38-24-7) LW: 13

TRUST THE KIDS

Player, team Year SH TOI/G
S. Couturier, PHI 2011-12 2:41
M. Read, PHI 2011-12 2:35
B. McMillan, ANA 2010-11 2:02
T. Galliardi, COL 2009-10 3:01
R. O'Reilly, COL 2009-10 2:54
C. Fraser, CHI 2008-09 2:57
K. Versteeg, CHI 2008-09 2:01
D. Steckel, WSH 2007-08 3:46
A. Burish, CHI 2007-08 2:50
T. Mitchell, SJS 2007-08 2:36
D. Winnik, PHX 2007-08 2:09
J. Staal, PIT 2006-07 3:02
P. Stastny, COL 2006-07 2:16
A. Kopitar, LAK 2006-07 2:05

As written in this space previously (like, last week), Colorado's Nathan MacKinnon is going to win the Calder Trophy. What he's doing as an 18-year-old is remarkable. That said, the Lightning have two players who will earn a lot of votes and at least one, if not both, could end up as finalists.

Forwards Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson are second and third, respectively, among NHL rookies in scoring. Palat has 18 goals and 46 points, while Johnson has 22 goals and 44 points. They both are playing more than 17 minutes per game, and they are the top two rookie forwards in shorthanded ice time this season (Palat is at 138:42 and Johnson is at 134:10).

Palat is averaging two minutes of shorthanded ice time per game, while Johnson checks in at 1:56. If he can bump that up just a little, both could join a group of rookies who have averaged two minutes per game or more shorthanded.

Three sets of teammates have accomplished the feat since 2006-07. Check out the table to the right. Fourteen rookies in total have done it in the past seven seasons.

MUST READ: Palat went 207 picks later in his draft than MacKinnon went in his, but he's been fantastic for the Lightning, writes Pierre LeBrun of ESPN.com.

10. Minnesota Wild (36-23-10) LW: 10

After scoring four goals in three games, the Wild enjoyed their stay on Long Island. The return of center Mikko Koivu and the addition of left wing Matt Moulson has helped the Wild produce more than 50 percent of the shot attempts at even strength when the score is close in five of the past seven games.

That's significant because the Wild's possession numbers had been falling steadily all season after a strong start. Minnesota had a Corsi-for percentage of 50.0 or better at even strength when the score is close in each of its first 10 games and 18 of the first 21. That happened 15 times in the next 41 games before the recent stretch.

MUST READ: Ger Devine of Hockey Wilderness writes about some similar players to rookie goaltender Darcy Keumper.

11. New York Rangers (37-29-4) LW: 9

There's been plenty of focus on right wing Martin St. Louis since he arrived before the NHL Trade Deadline, and the Rangers' offense has been spotty. After two substandard starts upon returning from from the 2014 Sochi Olympics, goalie Henrik Lundqvist has allowed 15 goals in seven games and has a .932 save percentage in that span. Those are deep playoff run-type numbers.

MUST READ: While lots of words have been written about St. Louis' lack of goals for the Rangers, Larry Brooks of the New York Post set his sights on another recent high-profile addition as well.

12. Montreal Canadiens (38-25-7) LW: 14

Goalie Carey Price is back and forward Thomas Vanek no longer has to deal with the questions about not scoring a goal yet like St. Louis is fielding in New York. The Canadiens also scored a couple of times on the power play in the third period when old friend Patrick Roy was in town, which snapped a 2-for-32 run. There still is time for the Canadiens to make their case in the ongoing quest to be considered the third-best team in the East behind Boston and Pittsburgh.

MUST READ: Andrew Berkshire examines if the Canadiens have found something that can last.

13. Columbus Blue Jackets (35-27-6) LW: 12

How far have the Blue Jackets come in two seasons? Forward Cam Atkinson is a talented young player and one of the players Columbus fans pinned their hopes on to be a key part of the revival after the team collapsed to the bottom of the NHL standings in 2011-12. 

Atkinson has developed nicely and is having a fine season for the Blue Jackets with 18 goals and 34 points in 65 games. He's also been a healthy scratch in four of the past six games (counting the game against the Dallas Stars that was postponed). Coach Todd Richards didn't like the way one of his young players was playing so he's trying to teach by taking away playing time.

That the Blue Jackets are deep enough for Richards to be able to do that in the middle of a postseason race says a lot about how far the team has come in two seasons. Other Metropolitan Division teams might want to take note of the fact Columbus has a couple more impact prospects on the way too.

MUST READ: Shawn Mitchell of the Columbus Dispatch writes the Blue Jackets have enjoyed not being in the position of chaser from back in the pack during this postseason push.

14. Dallas Stars (32-25-11) LW: 11

The Stars have been a very nice story this season. New general manager Jim Nill made a great trade to land a burgeoning superstar in Tyler Seguin, a great first-round pick to nab Valeri Nichushkin several spots later than he should have gone in the 2013 NHL Draft, and his team is on the cusp of returning to the playoffs. Now Dallas has to finish the job. 

It has been five straight seasons without a postseason berth, and 27 other teams have been to hockey's big dance in that span. Trevor Sudbury of Defending Big D breaks down the remaining schedule.

It could be a wild scramble to the finish line when the Stars will play six games in the final nine days. They would be wise to not leave it until the season finale in Phoenix.

MUST READ: Sara Kwak of Sports Illustrated writes about Seguin growing up in Dallas.

15. Philadelphia Flyers (36-25-7) LW: 16

Captain Claude Giroux said the Flyers were going to make the playoffs. He did so when the team was 1-7-0 and looked like a disaster. Well, Giroux has been awesome after a slow personal start and will earn some top-six Hart Trophy votes for his effort. His Flyers also have a chance to make good on his prediction. As Dave Lozo of Bleacher Report writes it certainly isn't going to be easy.

MUST READ: Matt Read has become a valuable, versatile player for the Flyers, writes Kevin Christmann of Broad Street Hockey.

16. Detroit Red Wings (31-24-13) LW: NR

The Penguins lead the League in man-games lost to injury by a wide margin, but the sheer number of players the Red Wings have been missing at times this season has been stunning. The replacements for the injured players have gotten hurt. Detroit had a player not finish the game because of injury in six straight.

And yet the Red Wings still are hanging around. If they keep "The Streak" alive, it will be remembered as one of the best coaching jobs of Mike Babcock's career.

MUST READ: Bourne with a rare Super 16 double dip as he writes about the breakdowns the Red Wings took advantage of Tuesday against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

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