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Islanders' Okposo ready to build off career season

by Jon Lane continues its preview of the 2014-15 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.

New York Islanders right wing Kyle Okposo created an identity during his breakout season of 2013-14.

For him to do that, the No. 7 pick of the 2006 NHL Draft first needed a shot of confidence after a disappointing 48-game 2012-13 season when he scored four goals and 24 points.

Halfway through that season, Okposo connected with Darryl Belfry, a skills coach who has worked with Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby, Chicago Blackhawks right wing Patrick Kane and Islanders teammate John Tavares, and found something down the stretch. After scoring 14 points in the season's first three months, Okposo finished with a goal and nine assists in 13 games, including points in four straight. In a six-game loss to the Penguins in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Okposo was among the team leaders with three goals and four points.

"It was big for me," Okposo said. "That series was a definite turning point with me with my confidence. I felt I could control the game and have a big impact on the game and be an impact player. I was able to do that in that series. It was big for my confidence."

Working with Belfry, Okposo was shown techniques that concentrated on extending possessions and using his body to put opponents in awkward positions to where he could not be defended. Video sessions revealed areas of the ice where he could be better, why he felt he could be better and why he felt like he wasn't as good as he should be.

"He's such an athletic player, very strong, but he wasn't showing any of that athleticism or strength when he was on top of the puck," Belfry said. "A lot of it was just saying, 'Hey, you're way better than this and, here, let me show you how.'"

Signs of a breakthrough were immediate last season when Okposo opened with 12 points (four goals, eight assists) in as many games and finished with a team and career-high 27 goals, 42 assists, four game-winning goals and 69 points in 71 games before his season ended with a lower-body injury sustained March 25. He matched his career-best with an eight-game point streak (six goals, seven assists) from Dec. 17 to Jan. 2 and had nine goals, 18 points and 51 shots on goal in January after not being named to the United States team for the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

"I feel like I'm where I want to be, but I want to be better," Okposo said. "I want to keep getting better and keep growing, and make sure that my game keeps evolving and not be satisfied. During that year I started working with [Belfry] it definitely took off."

Kyle Okposo
Right Wing - NYI
GOALS: 27 | ASST: 42 | PTS: 69
SOG: 195 | +/-: -9
Last season also showed Okposo can thrive without riding shotgun to Tavares, whose season ended because of a knee injury in Sochi. Okposo had eight points in eight games playing without linemates Tavares and Thomas Vanek (traded), including a goal and six assists the week ending March 16 to earn the League's second star.

"I might argue he played better even after John was away," Belfry said. "That I think led to a really a self-assuredness in him that he can be the player he was supposed to be, and even better than that. Mentally, he's in the best shape I have seen him.

"Kyle can play with any type of player and he's going to find a way to do what he does, and that's empowering. He can feel that. If he needs to get a puck, he can get a puck. He can find multiple ways in which he can get it and can dictate what happens after that."

Okposo enters this season entrenched on the first line of what he believes is the most talented Islanders team of his seven-year tenure, and motivated to erase the troubles of last season when New York finished in 26th place and 14 points out of a playoff spot. Although the Islanders went 12-7-3 without Tavares, a 3-14-3 skid that began in mid-November and included a 10-game winless streak effectively ended their postseason hopes.

"You can't lose 10 games in a row and expect to be an elite-level team," Okposo said. "We weren't able to recover from that. I thought we played well in spurts last year, but we were plagued by losing streaks. The elite teams limit their losing streaks, and you have to be able to do that in this League. That's something we're going to learn from and try to correct this year.

"As a team, I think we made some pretty good moves this summer. We solidified our goaltending and added a couple of good pieces up front, and I think definitely we're going to take the next step this year."


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