Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Kyle Okposo: A New Star is Born?

Okay okay, so maybe the word "star" is a bit premature as Kyle Okposo prepares to make his NHL debut tonight against the Toronto Maple Leafs but it's apparently something the New York Islanders expect after taking him with the 7th overall pick 2006. Much of that expectation may revolve around the fact that the team needs something to look forward to after a tough season.

Hockey scouting is an interesting business since it often starts while young prospects are still physically growing as well as mentally. At the ripe age of 19, Okposo is actually more filled out than most prospects standing 6' tall and weighing a solid 195 lbs. For the sake of comparison, Kyle Turris was drafted third overall last year and while he's an inch taller than Okposo he only weighs 170lbs which is something that will need to change for him to survive the enduring nature of the National Hockey League. Hockey tends to get faster and more physical with each step up the ladder so Okposo's size could enable him to play a more tenacious game and immediately have success in the NHL.

Much like other highly touted prospects he has a list of awards from the lower levels including Rookie of the Year, Clark Cup Playoff MVP, First Team All Star and All Rookie team in the USHL in 2005-2006 which put him on the list of must see prospects going into the draft. He spent less than 2 seasons as a Minnesota Gopher, his hometown college, where he scored 26 goals and 25 assists in 58 games before signing a three-year entry level contract worth $850,00 a year with the Islanders. He then played in the World Juniors Tournament for USA where he had one goal and five assists in seven games before officially turning pro and heading to the Islander's AHL affiliate the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. He's played 29 games for the Sound Tigers where he's scored eight goals and 16 assists including this beauty:

Okposo can play either wing but his natural position is on the right side. He's shown the potential to play with tremendous intensity throughout his young career at all levels but it's difficult to know exactly how a player will handle a defenseman like, say, Dion Phaneuf until he's forced to do so. Like most young offensive prospects his defensive play will need some work in order to be trusted in every zone, but the youngster has great potential and it should be exciting to see how he does on his first night in the show. This is the kind of thing that the Islanders need for the young players on their team and their fans. The beauty of this is that with only 2 and a half weeks left, Okposo won't be able to play enough games for this year to count as the first year of his contract. It's a beautifully timed experiment that will help him get some games under his belt while delaying the financial difficulties of re-signing a young, talented restricted free agent.

The NHL stands to get a nice infusion of young talent at the end of this season with Kyle Turris nearing his debut as well and a few others being considered. The number of 17-19 year olds playing in the league continues to climb and it'll be interesting to see if more NHL teams handle it like the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins have a system where young rookies live with veterans who show them how to survive in the spotlight and how to be a true professional in the NHL. Mario Lemieux did it for Sidney Crosby, Sergei Gonchar did it for Evgeni Malkin and Mark Recchi did it for Jordan Staal, so will anyone do the same for Okposo or Turris? I've only read positive things about the system but it's tough to know with any certainly. The only thing that we do know for certain is that the NHL is healthy in young talent and it appears to getting healthier financially, so now if we could just get that whole NHL on real TV thing figured out we might be getting somewhere....

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