UNIONDALE, N.Y. – For most of the players who took the ice at Nassau Coliseum for the New York Islanders
-Toronto Maple Leafs game on Tuesday night, it was just another night in a long NHL season.
For Kyle Okposo, it was much more than that: It was an evening he’ll never forget.
The 19-year-old made his NHL debut for the Islanders against the Leafs, roughly 21 months after he was selected seventh overall in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. While the result wasn’t what Okposo or the Isles were hoping for — Toronto rallied for a 3-1 victory — it was a still a night almost two years in the making.
One that was accompanied by butterflies.
“I was a bit jittery at first,” said Okposo, who registered two shots on goal in 14:45 of ice time. “I psyched myself out, almost. I thought the game was faster than it was in that first period. I started to calm down a bit in the second and third. But I thought I played all right.”
After a season and a half at the University of Minnesota and 29 games in the American Hockey League, Okposo arrived on Long Island with as much hype as any player since goalie Rick DiPietro – the first overall pick in 2000 – made his debut in 2001.
DiPietro has been as good as advertised. He appeared in his first All-Star Game in January and was mainly responsible for the Islanders being in a playoff race up until a couple of weeks ago, despite the fact that New York’s 177 goals are the fewest in the NHL. Their only goal against the Maple Leafs on Tuesday night was a fluke — stay-at-home defenseman Rob Davison slapped a clearing pass from just in front of his own goal line that took a weird bounce and hopped past Vesa Toskala late in the first period.
Simply put, the Islanders need more finishers.
That’s where Okposo comes in.
A native of St. Paul, Minn., Okposo was the Most Valuable Player of the United States Hockey League’s playoffs in 2006, when he led the Des Moines Buccaneers to a Clark Cup championship. He had 16 points in 11 postseason games.
From there, it was on to Minnesota. Most incoming players need time to adjust to college hockey — but not Okposo. He stepped in and averaged a point per game as a freshman, scoring 19 goals and adding 21 assists in 40 games. He returned for his sophomore season and put up 11 points (seven goals, four assists) in the team’s first 18 games.
But on Dec. 19, 2007, everything changed. Okposo informed the school that he was leaving in the midst of the college season to sign with the Islanders. Almost three months to the day, he found himself in the NHL.
“Obviously guys are better, but hockey’s hockey anywhere you go,” Okposo said. “Whether it’s on the pond or in college or the NHL, it’s still hockey. I’ve played the game a thousand times, and it’s not going to change. I didn’t really have any expectations. All the guys were really supportive.”
Okposo certainly made the most of his time in the AHL, as he went 8-16-24 in 29 games with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. But with nine games remaining on the Islanders’ schedule, the Isles decided it was time to see what he can do in the big time. If Okposo played 10 games or more with the Isles this season, it would have counted against his entry-level contract.
When he arrived on Long Island, he couldn’t possibly have felt alone. The Islanders have been decimated by injuries in recent months (DiPietro was the latest causality, as he had an MRI on his hip on Tuesday afternoon), which has forced them to promote more than a half-dozen players from Bridgeport.
|The belief on Long Island — or at least, the hope — is that Okposo will be responsible for bringing the Nassau Coliseum crowd to its feet quite often for the next decade and beyond.
“It’s almost like we didn’t just call Kyle … we called his whole team to come up here and make him feel real comfortable,” Isles coach Ted Nolan said. “He should feel a little bit more comfortable with a couple of his young peers with him.”
But Okposo will need help from the veterans on his team down the stretch as he becomes accustomed to life in the NHL. Nolan wisely placed Okposo’s stall in the Islanders’ locker room right next to captain Bill Guerin, who played his first NHL game almost two decades ago in the old Chicago Stadium.
“This is an opportunity for us to help these young guys and have an impact on their career and try to make them a little better if we can,” Guerin said. “I thought he played really well and he handled himself well. He’s a young kid and he’s got a long way to go, but he’s going to be a good player. You can tell he’s got good skill. It takes time. There’s very few guys who just jump in and become stars.”
Skating on a line with Richard Park and Blake Comeau, Okposo’s best scoring chance came midway through the third period. The 6-foot-1, 200-pound right wing gained control of the puck in the corner and skated all the way around the net before attempting to stuff the puck under Maple Leafs goalie Vesa Toskala. Much of the 13,134 in attendance became more excited with each stride Okposo took from out of the corner, believing they were about to witness his first NHL goal.
“I saw that I had a step on the defenseman,” Okposo said. “If I would have realized that I had a lot more time than I thought, I would have stopped and made a move or something. But it was a pretty good chance.”
The belief on Long Island — or at least, the hope — is that Okposo will be responsible for bringing the Nassau Coliseum crowd to its feet quite often for the next decade and beyond. His wraparound attempt could very well be just a sample of what fans can expect down the road.
“That was a nice play,” Nolan said. “Once he feels a little bit more comfortable … you can tell that he’s an exciting player. He’s got a good future here.”
Contact Brian Compton at: firstname.lastname@example.org.