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Islanders Grades: The injury-truncated case of Kyle Okposo

Yesterday (and continuing today) we saw just how much passion a 21-year-old's first 211 NHL games can evoke. Today we'll address another youngster entering restricted free agency. This one's had a little more success in his first three seasons -- in part, I'd argue, because Kyle Okposo's NHL clock began a year (really 18 months) later in life than Josh Bailey's.

Bailey was thrust into the NHL around his 19th birthday after three seasons of major junior (against 16-20 year olds). Okposo entered the NHL full-time around his 20th birthday, after a season of U.S. junior, 1.5 seasons of NCAA (against 18-23+ year olds), a half season of AHL (against men), an IIHF major junior tourney and a nine-game orientation in the NHL. Okposo's position as a winger is also less complex than what's demanded of an NHL center, which is Bailey's drafted position.

But that's all just to paint a frame of reference for the expectations and still unwritten futures of the Islanders' 2006 7th-overall pick and 2008 9th-overall pick. This post is really about Okposo and his report card for season three, which was halved and gutted by a preseason shoulder injury.

The Narrative

The 1-2 whammy of losing Mark Streit and Kyle Okposo to season-wrecking shoulder injuries is not one I'll soon go over. Maybe in the long run it will be seen as some sort of "everything happens for a reason" breather that allowed the Isles to find a new coach (and better fit?), get a better draft stud in June, pick up a waiver claim named Michael Grabner, and learn more things about the healthy players they already had.

But it's hard not to see both injuries as nothing short of disaster. Soul-shaking events that tempt you to venue shop for a different hockey god (or gods, if you're not into the whole monogamous one-sport, one-deity thing). Maybe find one (or many) with nicer rituals and the promise of a better after-Yashin-life.

Unlike Streit, whose injury kept him out for all 82 games, Okposo's shoulder injury was less complex and allowed him to return in late January. There were many moments of rust, a few moments of elation as Okposo made the Frans Nielsen / Michael Grabner combo even better, creating a new FnGO! Line that was dominant in most games. (To simplify garik16's Fanpost on the matter: When that line is out there, the Isles outshoot their opposition, period.)

With the steady and quietly superb Nielsen, the emerging Grabner, and the always relentless Okposo, it's never clear how much which guy keys the success of the others on that line, but suffice to say that line didn't look bad against any opposition outside of the occasional off night.

2010-11 - Kyle Okposo 38 5 15 20 3 40 15 0 16:34 2:32 0:29 72 6.9%

For Okposo, the injury necessarily makes this season a disappointment. Thankfully he got into nearly a half-season of games though, and while his production rate wasn't what most expect for his career, it wasn't bad -- and it wasn't PP-dependent (15 ESP, 0 PPG).

Oh, and for what it's worth in 38 games, Okposo's relative Corsi was by far the best on the team. (Note: He also played during the Islanders' best 38-game stretch of the season, so...chicken or egg -- or some laboratory hybrid?)

The Role

Okposo was Scott Gordon's go-to player for just about every situation. Gordon played him, a lot -- I think too much, honestly. Under Jack Capuano, he again saw some time at the PP point (I'm not a fan) and not much PK time, but all of this is restricted by the caveat that Okposo was being eased back in after injury.

Next season is a new slate, with a (hopefully) healthy Okposo and Capuano guiding the team from the start. How he's used bears watching, and probably dictates what kind of counting numbers we see. Speaking of which...

Okposo: Hustler, Sniper, or Both?

A lingering question: Should we really expect Okposo to be any kind of "sniper?" Again going to the garik FanPost well, there was ample discussion on this topic.

Personally, I think this question requires resetting what it is we expect from hockey players and how we categorize them. To me a "true" sniper is a guy with an incredible shot and the knack for getting into opportunities (whether disregarding defense or not) to get that shot off. Think Ovechkin or Stamkos or Bossy, think guys who can be expected to get 40 goals (or in Bossy's day, 50+) in any given year.

The rest of the guys who fall into "but he's not a true sniper" debates, to me, are "very good hockey players" who do a lot of things well, and through luck and opportunity will get 20+ goals one year and maybe put up a 40-goal season if the stars align right. Mike Richards is too flattering a comparison for Okposo, but his profile is what I'm talking about: A fantastic all-around player who's had two 30-goal seasons (age 23 and 24) and, this past season, "only" 23 goals. As we saw with Grabner this season, a fantastic week can be the difference in those season totals.

If Okposo hits 30 goals one season and then falls back to 21 the next (to be fair, he's yet to reach 20), I'm not going to think he stinks or isn't a good player anymore. I see all the nice things he brings to the table. He's the kind of good hockey player a team needs more of, whether he's scoring 18, 25 or even 30 goals.

The Contract?

All of this puts Okposo's pending restricted free agency in a more complicated light. From what we know now, his production has been better than fellow RFA Bailey and he is more definitively a part of TEH CORE at this point. Those factors would lead me to think his rate will surely be higher than Bailey's if they sign for the same term. While Bailey's first three years were altered by shifting roles and injuries, Okposo's role was always clear but injuries limited him even more so.

RFAs coming off their ELC tend to sign two-year deals that bridge toward their next arbitration-eligible free agency, or else go long with the club (as the older Grabner did). If club and player both want to go long, Okposo's rate will be lower than what it otherwise would likely be if they hit the bargaining table again in two years. But as we saw this year with Okposo, injuries happen. (And the uncertainty of the next CBA looms for every new contract going forward.)

It's an interesting case, and an important contract. No matter which way it goes, I'm expecting most Isles fans will be happy, as both player and club appear to be on quite good terms.

The Poem

Your shoulder now repaired
Your ELC now through
We ask not how you fared
But how much more you'll do?

So glad I'm not GM
Sorting RFA proposals
Just a Fifth Estate fan
With your talents at my disposal

The Grade, and a Look Back at Pr*j*ct*ns

In the past, half seasons get "incompletes" at LHH, but the fact is it's fun to discuss every player's season and Okposo's is no different. So while we normally ask that you grade players based on your preseason expectations, there's obviously going to be wiggle room here depending on whether you: 1) Penalize Okposo for his injury ("I expected 82 games!); 2) Give him grace before his injury ("Technically his injury was in preseason, so..."), or 3) go off the board entirely, as is always your right.

However, Okposo is one of the cases where we actually did run a community pr*j*ct*n before the season with an eye toward grading period. (If you're new-ish to LHH this season or don't know why some regulars treat "projection" as an expletive, it's because we ran preseason pr*j*ct*ns for Okposo and Streit and then both were promptly struck down by injury.)

Skimming comments there, most voters seemed to expect a season of ~60 points and mid-20s in goals. His actual rate was more like 40+ points and ~12 goals, but of course that's after stepping in cold at midseason following surgery and extensive rehab. That probably doesn't help us much here, but ... well, that's what the pr*j*ct*n curse is all about.

Anyway, the poll is for pretty charts, but for me the fun is in how you explain yourself in comments.