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Atlantic: Okposo's decision to turn pro good news for Islanders

by Chuck Gormley / NHL.com
Now that he has decided to leave the University of Minnesota for a chance to play in the NHL, the tremendously talented Kyle Okposo could be in an Islanders uniform by the start of 2008. 
When the New York Islanders ring in the New Year, they may also be ringing in the Kyle Okposo era.

 

Never heard of Okposo? Trust me, you will soon.

Taken seventh overall by the Islanders in the 2006 draft, Okposo has drawn comparisons to Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow and Brendan Shanahan.

“We’re extremely excited about the possibility of Kyle joining our organization soon,” Islanders General Manager Garth Snow said after Okposo decided to leave the University of Minnesota for a chance to play in the NHL. “He’s a great talent, one of the most exciting prospects in the game. Kyle has the dedication and character we want for our franchise.”

Okposo’s decision to leave Minnesota midway through his sophomore season raised some eyebrows and piqued the interest of Islander Nation. A native of St. Paul, Minn., Okposo will represent Team USA in this week’s World Junior Championships and could be in an Islanders uniform by the start of 2008.

So who is Kyle Okposo and why is he most often compared to Iginla?

For starters, both players have a Nigerian father and a Caucasian mother. Okposo’s father was born in Nigeria and immigrated to the U.S. as a teenager, earning a Ph.D. and settling in St. Paul with Okposo’s mother.

Physically, Okposo and Iginla share similar builds and athletic talents. At 6-foot-1, 205 pounds, Okposo is the same height and three pounds lighter than Iginla and many believe that at age 19, there is still room for him to grow into a body destined to become an NHL power forward.

Like Iginla, Okposo shows no fear on the ice, can take and deliver big hits along the wall, and has an incredible touch around the net.

“Kyle is a big, strong guy who runs over people,” said Islanders head U.S. amateur scout Tony Feltrin. “He has a certain edge to his game. Kyle is a powerful skater who is dangerous coming out of the corners. He takes hits well and dishes them out just as effectively. Kyle plays hard and stickhandles well in traffic. His hard-nosed, no-quit style is complemented by his soft hands. Kyle is not afraid to sacrifice his body to block a shot. His intelligence makes his game effective at both ends of the ice. Islanders fans will be excited to see him play."

As a child, Okposo’s favorite book was Kirby Puckett’s Be The Best You Can Be and it was clear from a young age that he would become something special. As his stickhandling skills became urban legend in St. Paul, he harbored dreams of someday playing for the Golden Gophers of Minnesota, where he idolized players like Jordan Leopold, now a defenseman with the Colorado Avalanche.

To get there, Okposo first enrolled in Shattuck-St. Mary’s School, a boarding school in Faribault, Minn., that has produced such NHLers as Sidney Crosby, Patrick Eaves, Jack Johnson, Ryan Malone, Jonathan Toewes and Zach Parise.

Okposo had an amazing senior season at Shattuck- St. Mary’s, notching 47 goals and 45 assists in 65 games. That was enough to convince the Islanders to take them with their first pick in 2006.

Okposo realized his dream of playing at Minnesota when he became the first black hockey player for the Gophers last season. He enjoyed a strong freshman season, finishing with 19 goals and 21 assists in 40 games. Among his 19 goals was an incredible between-the-legs, top-shelf goal against Minnesota State that made every highlight reel and remains a must-see on YouTube.

Okposo got off to a slow start at Minnesota this season (seven goals and four assists in 18 games) and decided last week that after playing for the U.S. world junior team, he would try to make the jump to the NHL.

The Islanders believe he’s ready and are in the process of signing him to an entry-level contract.

“Kyle’s ability to control the puck along the boards and play a power forward-style game will be a huge asset to the Islanders for a long time to come,” said Islanders Assistant GM Ryan Jankowski. “He has a great future in our organization.”

Around the Atlantic -- More than a month after saying John Stevens would be back behind the Flyers’ bench next season, GM Paul Holmgren finally put it in writing on Friday, giving his coach a one-year extension. “John has built strong relationships with many of our young players as well as with the players that joined us over the summer,” said Holmgren, who is also under contract through next season. “We believe that he is the right coach to lead our team in a positive direction.” Holmgren said the lengthy negotiations that led to Mike Richards’ 12-year contract helped delay Stevens’ extension. Stevens, 41, entered Saturday night’s rematch with the Buffalo Sabres with a 16-14-3 record this season, his first full season behind an NHL bench. … Sports Business Journal reports that Islanders TV ratings on FSN have increased an NHL-leading 176 percent from last season. “That’s an impressive stat,” said Islanders GM Garth Snow. “On one hand it’s not surprising because nobody knows or appreciates how passionate and supportive Islanders fans are than our management, players and staff. But 176 percent? That's outstanding.” … The Rangers entered Sunday’s game against Ottawa having lost seven of nine, but were hoping the return of left wings Marcel Hossa (flu) Sean Avery (wrist surgery) would give them a boost. Center Scott Gomez entered Sunday’s game with seven goals and 20 assists in his last 24 games. … Sidney Crosby registered his first “Gordie Howe Hat Trick” -- a goal, an assist and a fight -- in a 5-4 shootout win over the Bruins last week. His fight with defenseman Andrew Ference was Crosby’s first of his NHL career. Crosby downplayed his accomplishment, but that didn’t stop him and teammates from watching his fight the next morning. As an aside, Flyers coach and resident NHL historian John Stevens noted that Howe had only one “Gordie Howe Hat Trick” in his entire career and it came on Dec. 22, 1955 against the Bruins. … It was quite a weekend for Devils coach Brent Sutter. In his return to his native Alberta, where he grew up in Viking, Sutter’s team rallied to beat the Oilers Friday night. On Sunday in Calgary, Sutter was set to coach against his brother Darryl, who is general manager of the Flames. The Devils’ three-game western Canada swing got off to a slow start, especially on the power play, where they were 0-for-11 in their first two games.

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