As well as Kyle Okposo has played over the last year, he seems to save his best hockey for the Pittsburgh Penguins. You couldn’t pick a better team to perform against, playing in front of two sets of influential eyes in the Team USA roster selection for the 2014 Sochi Olympics - Penguins general manager (and Team USA associate general manager) Ray Shero and (Penguins and Team USA) head coach Dan Bylsma. Okposo scored crucial goals and made game-changing plays in last year’s playoff series against the Pens, and he's added five points (two goals, three assists) in three games against Pittsburgh this season.
Okposo is making a very strong case to be included on the US Olympic men’s hockey roster, set to be announced January 1 after the Winter Classic. At the Christmas break, the St. Paul, MN, native is off to his best start, with 33 points (12g/21a) in 38 games, an identical total with names such as Phil Kessel and Joe Pavelski, who both are rumored as locks to make the team.
“One hundred percent he should be on that Olympic team,” Islanders assistant coach and former US Olympian Doug Weight said. “Kyle has bloomed in the last 14 months of his career. He is a horse out there and is one of the best forwards we have on a consistent basis. After seeing all the Olympic team previews, I think they would be remised if they didn’t give him a chance.”
Okposo’s points don’t tell the whole story, although as of Dec. 27, he was tied for third amongst American-born players in scoring (behind Patrick Kane and Bobby Ryan). His coaches cited his character, leadership, hustle and physicality as prime reasons why he deserves strong consideration to wear the red, white and blue in Sochi.
“Those are things that can bring a lot to a team and I’m sure that is what they look for,” Islanders head coach Jack Capuano said. “Last season in the playoffs and this year he’s been using that big body and he’s skating fast and physical. I really like his discipline, his shooting and he’s been making really good decisions when moving the puck.”
The 25-year-old has found a home on the Islanders top line and is taking full advantage of his situation. He’s a top-20 scorer in the league, wears the A (associate captain) on his jersey and has stepped up against the NHL’s top teams, like Pittsburgh.
“I always knew he was good, but now playing with him I realized how many different things he does,” linemate Thomas Vanek said. “He can shoot the puck with the best and his vision and skating are very good at a high speed.”
Keen observers have taken note of Okposo’s growth this season, as the hard-nosed forward is effectively using his 6’0”, 215 lbs. frame. He stands up for his teammates in scrums and isn’t afraid to drop the gloves, coupling his high-end skill with sandpaper.
“Kyle skates extremely well for a guy with his dominating size. He’s not afraid to go in the corners or in front of the net, and he can also play that finesse game on the outside," Vanek said. "There’s many different ways Kyle can create plays.”
Okposo has international experience, playing on the United States' U-17, U-20 and World Championship clubs, but his play has elevated since his last trip overseas.
The Team USA management does not have an easy decision with the players they have to choose from, but without a doubt, Okposo has proven that his name deserves to be in with the many hopefuls who dream of representing their country.
The Coliseum faithful already knows what Okposo brings to the Islanders on a nightly basis; now it’s time for the rest of the country to find out too.