"I really thought he got better as the tournament went on. I already held Kyle in very high regard, but after watching all of these great players compete, I have no problem at all saying that there are not a whole lot of guys I would rather have on my team than Kyle."
>>Islanders head coach and USA assistant Scott Gordon
The World Championships ended with another disappointing near-miss for Team USA (anyone else a little concerned about the national program's tendency to fall short in the medal round?). But for 21-year-old Kyle Okposo, it was the end of another wild, multi-team apprentice season in his young career.
Last year Okposo went from U. of Minnesota to Team USA at the World Juniors, then to AHL Bridgeport, and finally to the Islanders for a nine-game pre-entry-level contract stint.
This year it was a full (if injury-interrupted) season on the Island, then a pair of playoff games with Bridgeport at Nassau Coliseum, before heading to Switzerland for the "big kid" World Championships.
While the above quote from Okposo's coach, Scott Gordon, was fed to the Islanders Web site for fan consumption, Gordon has thus far not been one to heap praise where it's not warranted. He could have stopped at something like, "Kyle had a strong tournament and we look forward to it helping him grow," or some such vanilla.
So whether the comment about few players Gordon would rather have was meant as a challenge for Okposo to keep getting better or just a purely sincere sentiment for a job (and season) well done, I'll take it as a good sign that Gordon sees Okposo taking on the value of the better players of this era. Or rather: Gordon knows Okposo will be one of the key players he takes into more significant battles in the coming seasons, and he feels good about that.
Kyle Okposo NYI 08-09
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To be sure, Okposo didn't light it up either in the brief Bridgeport playoff appearance nor in this tourney for Team USA, much like the early part of his NHL season. But all reports indicate he took on a significant role for Team USA along with other exciting young American forwards and -- most importantly -- never stopped displaying the determined "puck grit" and relentless "compete level" that Islanders fans grew accustomed to seeing from him long after this season became a Tavares-destined wash. That he went through a major tournament next to fellow never-stop forwards Dustin Brown, David Backes (two of USA's three best players in the tourney) and TJ Oshie couldn't hurt.
In other words, since Gordon talked to him just before his first injury early this past NHL season, Okposo has never again played like he's "just glad to be here." In a salary capped world where the difference between equivalent talents is who "wants it" more shift after shift, this is a good sign. We know Okposo can finish, we know he can use his body to win and protect the puck. At a still-tender young age, it's good to see his fire to do so has burned unabated, no matter what uniform he's wearing.
As he told Newsday's Greg Logan:
"It's been fun to play in a playoff-type atmosphere like [this]. You get a bit of a taste of this kind of play, and you just want to play in the playoffs all the time."
That wouldn't be half-bad, would it? Here's hoping he gets to that level as an Islander.