One is the son of a Nigerian immigrant who was determined enough to earn his Ph.D.
One became the first player born and raised in Denmark to make it to the NHL.
One skated in the shadows of a father who won a Stanley Cup for one of the NHL’s greatest dynasties.
Together, Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen and Jeff Tambellini represent the future of the New York Islanders, three critical pieces of a team searching for an identity.
“If you look around the league, every successful team has its share of young players,” Islanders General Manager Garth Snow told NHL.com. “Just because you’re young doesn’t mean you can’t win hockey games.”
A year ago, the Chicago Blackhawks threw 18-year-old Patrick Kane and 19-year-old Jonathan Toews into the deep end and discovered they could not only survive, but thrive in the NHL. Kane and Toews finished first and third on the Blackhawks in scoring with 72 and 54 points, respectively.
The Islanders are showing a similar leap of faith in Okposo, 20, Neilsen, 24, and Tambellini, 24. Together they combined to play in just 56 games for the Islanders last season, totaling 5 goals and 7 assists.
Where are they now?
Okposo (pronounced OH-Poh-So) will start the season on the top line with center Mike Comrie and left wing Jon Sim. Nielsen will center a second line with Tambellini on the left and Trent Hunter on the right.
At 6-foot-1, 200 pounds and still growing, Okposo is a young moose with porcelain hands. He looks like, plays like and scores like Jarome Iginla, and their backgrounds are eerily similar.
“Look at him,” Tambellini said with a laugh. “He’s Jarome, right?”
Okposo’s father, a Nigerian national, immigrated to the United States as a teenager, settled in Minnesota and eventually earned his Ph.D. Kyle played hockey and basketball as a youngster and had a flair for the unexpected in both sports.
When he wasn’t trying acrobatic moves down the lane, he was trying them in the crease. When one of those moves – a between-the-legs pass to himself – resulted in a top-shelf goal against Minnesota State two seasons ago, it received more than 100,000 views on YouTube.
In a controversial move, Okposo left the University of Minnesota midway through his sophomore year last season to join the Islanders’ AHL team in Bridgeport. He never skipped a beat, recording 28 points in 35 games before the Isles recalled him.
“He was head and shoulders above everybody,” Tambellini said. “He has strength, he has great hands, he skates well, and whenever anybody took a run at him he held his own.
He’s only 20-years-old. By the time he’s 24 or 25 or 26, he’s going to be tough to handle in this league.”
Snow said he’ll leave the comparisons to Iginla to others, saying Okposo will need to develop at his own pace.
“He’s matured physically and mentally to a point where he can handle the extra ice time he’ll get this season,” Snow said.
Like Okposo, Nielsen is also breaking new ground. He is the first player born – and raised – in Denmark to wear an NHL sweater.
Danish hockey historians may point out that Paul Popiel is truly the first player from Denmark to play in the NHL and they’d be right. Popiel played 224 games over a 13-year career in the NHL, AHL and WHA in the 1960s and 1970s. But Popiel spent most of his childhood in Canada, where he learned to play the game. Nielsen, who was born in Herning, Denmark, played there until he was 17, eventually leaving his country to play in the more challenging Swedish Elite League.
"He's produced at the college level and at the AHL level. He's earned the right to be here."
-- Islanders General Manager Garth Snow on forward Jeff Tambellini
The Islanders were impressed enough to select Nielsen in the third round of the 2002 draft and when Nielsen had an impressive showing in the 2007 World Championships, where he played on a team with his brothers Daniel and Jens, the Islanders called him up for 15 games. Last season, Nielsen had 38 points in 48 games with Bridgeport, playing mostly on a line with Tambellini.
“He’s a very underrated player who’s going to make his linemates better because of the way he can distribute the puck,” Snow said. “Also plays a solid two-way game.”
Tambellini is hoping that playing on a line with Nielsen and Hunter will result in a breakthrough season for him. The 5-foot-11, 186-pounder from Calgary has had trouble living up to his draft status as the 27th player taken in 2003 by the Los Angeles Kings. Since then Tambellini has scored 93 goals in 161 AHL games, but has managed just 4 goals in 79 career NHL games.
“He’s produced at the college level and at the AHL level,” Snow said. “He’s earned the right to be here.”
Tambellini spent most of his childhood – from age 7 through 14 – in Vancouver, where his father, Steve, finished a productive 10-year NHL career that included a Stanley Cup title with the Islanders in 1979-80.
“Being around that atmosphere, it’s easy to know what you want to be,” Tambellini said. “I got to know Trevor Linden and he was phenomenal with me as a kid. Just watching the way he was a leader inspired me.”
Today, Steve Tambellini is the new general manager in Edmonton, where the Islanders will visit on Jan. 5.
“It’s the first time I’ll ever face my Dad’s team,” Tambellini said. “I’ve already got it circled on my calendar.”
Last season, under coach Ted Nolan, Tambellini was relegated to third- and fourth-line duty. He is hoping that a new coach, former Providence bench boss Scott Gordon, and a fresh start will result in a rebirth of his career.
“He’s been fantastic,” Tambellini said of the 45-year-old coach. “When teams play against us they’ll see a different style than they’ve seen in the past. We take away time and space in all zones. It’s real speed hockey.”
Snow said Gordon has run a very organized and structured training camp and is an excellent teacher of the game.
“He’s like clockwork,” Snow said. “A player comes off the ice and he’s right down there communicating with him on the bench. He is the right coach for our team.”
Perhaps, but that hasn’t stopped most preseason prognosticators from putting the Islanders at or near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings. Tambellini said that’s to be expected with young teams.
“But look at Edmonton and Chicago,” he noted. “It might not happen right away, but teams are going to realize they’ll have their hands full when they play us.
“None of us want to sit here and be happy with losing. We’re not just happy to be here. We want to jump in and put our stamp on this team.”
Snow said the tides of change may be gradual, but he believes the Islanders’ commitment to players like Okposo, Nielsen and Tambellini will result in the long-term success of the franchise.
“We don’t put too much stock into where we’re projected to finish,” he said. “It’s up to us to change people’s opinions.”