by Lindsay Kramer || NHL.com
For reasons both obvious and unexpected, Bridgeport Sound Tigers rookie right wing Kyle Okposo is probably the most watched player in the AHL right now.
So there’s only one way that Okposo knows how to respond. He’s giving everyone something to look at.
Okposo is deftly skating through a firestorm created when he left the University of Minnesota during his sophomore season to start his pro career in the New York Islanders organization, which was unhappy with his development in college.
In his first five games with the Sound Tigers, Okposo ripped off a goal and six assists. Oh, so that must be what he means by development.
“I thought it was OK. I thought I had pretty good jump. I was trying to make some plays out there,” Okposo said after his first AHL three-in-three weekend. “It was different than college. Guys are a lot smarter. They are not running around all the time. In college, guys are running around like loose cannons trying to take people’s heads off.”
No matter when he broke into the pro ranks, Okposo was going to be a magnet for attention because of his status as New York’s first-round pick (No. 7 overall) in the 2006 draft. The way he’s making his splash just cranks up the magnification on the microscope.
Okposo had seven goals and four assists in 18 games for Minnesota, after going 19-21 as a freshman last year.
Okposo’s hockey timing was perfect, as usual. He was playing for the United States at the World Juniors in the Czech Republic at the time, so he missed much of the fallout.
“I knew it was going to come, just because of the situation I was in,” Okposo said. “I kind of expected it a little bit. I didn’t expect as much as (there was). I just thought it was the best time for me (to leave school). I wish it had got no publicity.”
Ah, but there’s the rub. It’s precisely because Okposo has thrived under such scrutiny that there’s every reason to believe his gambit is going to pay off almost immediately.
Last year, Okposo was named to the all-WCHA second team and the WCHA all-rookie team in a hockey-frenzied league. Playing in the World Juniors was another big-moment jewel. Turning pro in the middle of an AHL season is a different beast all together, but it’s one that few players are as well-equipped to handle as Okposo.
“I’ve never looked at it as pressure,” Okposo said. “Throughout my whole life, I’ve looked at anything that’s thrown at me as a challenge. People can say whatever they want. I’m just going to go out and do the best I can. I’m going to be under a microscope a bit. But I’m not thinking about that.”
Even Minnesota coach Don Lucia, who did not want to relive the back-and-forth of Okposo’s departure, thinks his former prized prospect will chew up the transition.
“He’ll probably have less pressure there,” Lucia said. “He’s a good player, but he’s 19. But he’ll learn to adjust as he plays a few games.”
Or perhaps even quicker. Sound Tigers coach Jack Capuano eyeballs the poised, 6-foot, 195-pound Okposo and sees both a workhorse and a salve for a struggling offense that’s in the bottom-third of the league.
“His conditioning is a little better than where I thought it was. At 19-years-old, he understands the concept of the game,” Capuano said. “I think he thinks the game as good as anybody we’ve had. He’s fitting in just fine. He’s an elite player. We’re going to develop him into an Islander here.”
The child of a Minnesota tennis player and a Nigerian soccer player, Okposo hopes his athletic prowess will bring him to the big show in Long Island.
Okposo is thrilled just to be some place where he can hang up his clothes. After packing his suitcase in Minnesota, he jetted off to the World Juniors, went back home to St. Paul for a couple days to gather some of his stuff and then cruised on over to Bridgeport. Then, he was tossed into the three-in-three fray.
“That’s all part of the transition process,” Okposo said. “Your mind has to be sharp, especially in that third game there, when you might be tired physically. Just the excitement of being a pro hockey player, and playing my first few games, that was enough to get me through it no matter how my body felt.”
Still, on an off-day between that initiation and a bus trip to Norfolk, Okposo unwound with a little shopping. An Xbox 360 was his splurge, since the one he had back home was broken.
“I’ve never really liked spending money, so I don’t see any reason to start now. This was probably my present to myself, the one thing I was going to buy,” Okposo said. “It was not too much, but it was what I wanted. It’s a good thing to have.”
Even better, when the time comes to move it and the rest of his stuff, the final leg of Okposo’s wild trip this season will be the shortest one of all. Long Island is maybe 90 minutes from Bridgeport, and though Okposo cringes at the speculation, that a hop, skip and jump to the Islanders looks more imminent with each passing game.
“Whether it’s a week from now or a year or two from now, I want to keep working on my game,” Okposo said. “Obviously, I’ve been self-motivated. I’m just planning on doing whatever. They tell me where to play, I go play my heart out. I’m just trying to get to be the best player I can every day.”
Lindsay Kramer, the AHL correspondent for NHL.com, profiles an up-and-coming player each Monday and his AHL notebook appears each Thursday on NHL.com.