by Dan Rosen || NHL.com
When the hip hop music comes on in the New York Islanders dressing room, Blake Comeau tells people to watch Kyle Okposo if you’re in the need of a good laugh.
"He is always doing some of his hip hop dances around the room and guys really laugh at him for that," Comeau told NHL.com while chuckling at the thought of his good friend and linemate bouncing around the room. "He also has this really deep voice that he can do and he tries to impersonate some of his favorite so-called musicians."
Comeau, clearly not a hip hop fan, wouldn’t go as far as calling Okposo the Islanders’ resident class clown, but he does know Okposo can really light up a room and that he’s definitely willing to be the center of attention.
To coach Scott Gordon, that makes 20-year-old Minnesotan the perfect candidate to represent the Islanders’ ongoing youth movement.
"He’s the type of guy you want to be the face of your franchise," Gordon told NHL.com. "He does all the right things, says all the right things and is very professional. It’s always nice to see first-rounders blossom into that type of role."
Okposo is blossoming at warp speed. He has 14 goals and 11 assists in 53 games, but his numbers hardly tell the entire story of his development.
Since returning from a wrist injury just before Christmas, Okposo’s ice time has gradually increased, peaking at 24:34 on Feb. 26 in a shootout loss to Toronto. He’s become a mainstay on the half-wall of the Islanders’ power play and has seven goals. He’s also playing regularly in 4-on-4 situations and has been so good there that he’s playing a role on the penalty kill, too.
"When he came back from his injury, he just started to progress on a nice, natural incline so he made it easy for me to justify doing it all," Gordon said. "When a guy plays consistently well every night, every shift, every practice it’s not something you have to think about doing."
Prior to the wrist injury, which kept him out for 13 games, Okposo was the odd man out of the power play and was playing maybe 13 minutes per game. He didn’t do any penalty killing and Gordon couldn’t even dream of sending him out in 4-on-4 situations.
"I feel a lot more comfortable out there and I’m back to playing and not thinking anymore," Okposo told NHL.com. "The system is second nature now and I feel like I’ve been playing with a lot more confidence lately, doing all the little things."
Okposo’s comfort level has allowed him to experiment, something he was afraid to do in the first quarter of the season.
When before he would chip the puck into the zone nearly every time, now he’s become adept at making hesitation moves to back defenders off to keep possession. Gordon said he’s getting good at shielding the puck when he comes out of the corners or off the wall.
He can do that because he’s a thick 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds.
"He’s leaning into people so they can’t strip him of the puck," Gordon said.
"That’s been one of the biggest transitions this year, just going up against a defenseman and knowing what move I can make and what move I can’t make," Okposo added. "I wasn’t really sure before. I was afraid to try things. I was a little too nervous."
Experience isn’t the only factor in Okposo’s rapid development. You can’t discredit his comfort level on Long Island after spending last season bouncing around to four teams within four months.
Okposo started as a sophomore at the University of Minnesota, but left after 18 games to pursue his professional career. He represented Team USA at the IIHF World Junior Championship in Prague before starting his pro career with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers of the American Hockey League. He also suited up for nine games with the Islanders.
He called it a whirlwind, but a worthwhile learning experience.
"I just want to go out there and play and last year was tough to go out and do anything," he said. "You never know which team you’re playing for, you know. It was also really different going from World Juniors to the pros. That was a big transition. And then coming up here for nine games and going back down, it was just a big rollercoaster. I think it made me a lot stronger mentally. I learned to stay with it."
Okposo’s personality is exactly what Gordon wants from all of the Islanders’ young players. He said the kid’s character showed earlier this season when he pushed him "about how much more was in the tank that wasn’t being used."
"I don’t think I have ever seen a player on the ice smile as much as he does and I think that comes out in his game," Gordon later added. "He enjoys playing and challenging himself and as a result he is always pushing himself to the brink."
All this is not a surprise to the Islanders. They drafted Okposo seventh in 2006 and have placed significant expectations on his development into a top-flight power forward.
If you think Okposo feels any pressure about that, you just don’t know this kid.
Remember, he’s the one who dances around to hip hop music before games.
"I don’t look at expectations too much. Everything is a challenge," Okposo said. "There is no pressure. Once you start looking at it as pressure that’s when your game gets messed up. I always play as hard as I can and let the chips fall where they may."