Kyle Okposo (Jim McIsaac/NHLI via Getty Images)
Isles winger Kyle Okposo's road to the NHL has included a few challenging seasons, but Adam Proteau says his performance in 2013-14 shows his best days are ahead.
Kyle Okposo’s favorite movie is The Count of Monte Cristo. The protagonist in the famous movie/novel is a teenager who appears destined for success, only to be thrown into turmoil beyond his control. While at his low point, he transforms himself into a learned man and goes about seeking revenge on a world that wronged him.
If you get to know Okposo, you can see why he loves this story. There are some striking similarities between the New York Islanders right winger and The Count. Okposo came into the NHL with much fanfare and a bright future, only to land in deep, sticky mud that caused him to question everything. But from that low point, Okposo has continued to develop and now he’s bent on leaving his mark on a hockey world that has doubted him too many times.
When the St. Paul, Minn., native was drafted seventh overall by the Islanders in 2006, he was coming off a big year at the University of Minnesota. He’d played at the legendary Shattuck-St. Mary’s prep school and used to structure his class schedule so he’d have time to watch schoolmate Sidney Crosby practice. The world was his oyster bar, and he had an all-you-can eat meal plan.
But like all players not named Crosby or Jonathan Toews, Okposo discovered his road to the NHL was not going to be a simple one. After his 18-goal, 39-point rookie NHL season was followed up with a 19-goal, 52-point sophomore effort, he ran into roadblocks.
He sustained a shoulder injury that sidelined him for 44 games in 2010-11 and although he set a career-best in goals (24) in 2011-12, the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign was a disaster (four goals and 24 points in 48 games). “I was struggling, wasn’t playing well, and my game was lost,” Okposo said. “I was stuck between being a skilled guy, power forward, and a grinder. It was a really difficult stretch.”
Okposo, now 26, came away from that season disheartened, but determined to turn things around. He had a life outside the game – he’s a voracious reader, movie buff and passionate golfer – but nothing mattered more than rediscovering what it was that made him an on-ice force to be reckoned with. To that end, he hired skills coach Darryl Belfry to provide a different perspective. “He was at a loss,” Belfry said. “He’d had some success, but his game had fallen off. He couldn’t figure out what was preventing him from doing well and needed an outside view because he’d tried everything internally. He believed he’d been good and could be good again, but he didn’t know the path. He wanted a fresh start.”
That fresh start, combined with hours of hard work, led to a different Okposo last season. Playing mostly on a line with John Tavares, Okposo hit new highs on offense (27 goals and 69 points in 71 games), and he asserted himself with smart, physical play. But even then, he couldn’t please everyone – in particular, the selection committee for the U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team, which left him off the roster for the 2014 Sochi Games just as it four years earlier for Vancouver.
For a proud American like Okposo, not representing his country was tough news to swallow when things weren’t going his way. But when he’d enjoyed such a strong 2013-14 campaign, being overlooked carried a particular sting.
“You could see he was upset,” Tavares said. “He felt like he put everything on the table and thought he deserved to be there. I think it added more fuel to him and you saw him take it to another level.”
That he did. Okposo even continued to play great after Tavares was sidelined for the final 22 games of the season with a knee injury. Okposo put up three goals and 10 points in his final 12 games. That’s when Belfry and others could see the growth in his game. “He knew when our captain went down he had another level,” Isles coach Jack Capuano said. “He’s gone through some struggles – and I think everyone has to go through a little bit of struggle to have success – but when he stays on the body and plays physical, he’s going to have success.”
Okposo enters the 2014-15 season with high expectations, but he’s now more equipped to deal with them. He’s in peak condition – Tavares said when you see him off the ice, you could mistake him for a football player or Navy Seal – and he’s got a confidence the Isles need to see from all of their youngsters.
The protagonist in The Count of Monte Cristo has many famous quotes, but this one in particular applies perfectly to Okposo: “Life is a storm, my young friend. You will bask in the sunlight one moment, be shattered on the rocks the next. What makes you a man is what you do when that storm comes. You must look into that storm and shout as you did in Rome. ‘Do your worst, for I will do mine.’ Then the fates will know you as we know you.”
It’s been eight summers of roller coaster rides since the Isles drafted Okposo, but he’s looked into the storm, shouted at it and the fates are going to know him for some time.
“I knew I had a long road ahead after I was drafted,” Okposo said. “You think you’re prepared, but the reality is different. Most guys have to learn how to be effective and I was no different.”