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On The Top Line

by Travis Betts / New York Islanders

With a shortened training camp, Islanders Head Coach Jack Capuano doesn’t have time to experiment with forward lines.

Though early speculation was that newcomer Brad Boyes would be given the first crack at playing top-line minutes alongside John Tavares and Matt Moulson, Capuano has opted instead for a proven solution in right wing Kyle Okposo.

“With a short camp, we thought it’d be best to try Kyle on that line,” Capuano said. “Kyle played a short stint with Johnny and Mouls last season and they were probably one of the top lines in the league.”

Okposo has practiced with Tavares and Moulson through the first three days of training camp. The second line role, which he filled last season alongside Frans Nielsen and Michael Grabner, has gone to Boyes.

“We played together off and on for the last four years so it’s nothing really new,” Okposo said. “It’s been good to be back on that line with those guys.”

The 6’0, 212-pound Okposo tallied a career-high 24 goals last season, including nine in the final nine games. Only Moulson scored on a higher percentage of his shots (16.4%) than Okposo (15.8%). Moulson believes that the 24-year-old winger’s presence will give the top line more versatility.

“Okie is definitely great on the forecheck,” Moulson said. “He’s got a great shot too. He’s a scoring threat as well as making plays, and I think we’re more of a down low kind of line when you add Kyle.”

Moulson (36 goals), Tavares (31 goals) and Okposo (24 goals) were the team’s top three goal scorers last season. The regular right wing on the top line last season, PA Parenteau, was known for his pass-first style, but with his departure during the offseason, one of the most coveted wings in the NHL became vacant.

Tavares says that Okposo’s style of play gives the Islanders three players on the top line who are legitimate scoring threats in all situations.

“Kyle is more of a power-forward type of player – real strong, with real powerful speed,” Tavares said. “He’s got a great shot. The things we want to be really good at are five-on-five in-zone and half-court situations where we can be strong on the puck down low and create offense that way. We had great success last year with Kyle for the month-and-a-half or two months that we played together.”

Last season the top line accounted for 42% of Islanders goals. While Capuano is aiming to have a more balanced squad this season, the importance of that top line scoring remains paramount.

“As far as that line, yeah, we’re looking to create some offense.” Capuano said. “Kyle is a big-body guy, he protects the puck real well. He’s got a quick release. Moulson is really good around the net. I’m hoping they can get off to a good start.”

In a 48-game season, that quick start will be all the more crucial. No matter the results, Tavares knows the lines will likely fluctuate at one point or another. With fewer practices available for players to learn each other’s tendencies, how well players adjust to those changes will be key.

“I can’t remember any team in any situation in any organization that’s kept the lines exactly the same from day one to the end of the season,” Tavares said. “A lot can happen. I would expect things to change with the ups and downs of the season. We’ve got to find success and chemistry. The three of us have had it before, and we’re looking to lead the way again.”

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