New York Islanders fans have come to define Kyle Okposo many different ways in the years since he first joined the club full-time in 2008, none of which are all-encompassing descriptions of his identity as a player.
He's John Tavares's right winger on the top line. He's the guy who's recorded 120 points over the course of the past two regular seasons (131 games). He's "Kyle Okposo, 2014 Winter Olympics Team USA snub" to the fans on days when they're feeling particularly angry at the outside hockey world. (They're always feeling particularly angry at the outside hockey world.)
Ontario-based hockey skills coach to the NHL's elite and Pro Playmakers founder Darryl Belfry knows the 27-year-old Okposo as something else entirely, something that bodes well for his future in the league: "He's an absolute athletic freak." Which, if you've ever watched Okposo in practice, or caught one of his highlight-reel goals on TV, or just stood next to him, you know to be 100 percent accurate.
And Belfry knows exactly what kind of praise he's bestowing when he uses that term, considering how he counts big-name NHLers like Tavares, Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane and Zach Parise among his clients. All who have varying levels of freakish athletic ability themselves.
Okposo, the No. 7 overall pick in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, spent the week of June 14 skating in one-on-one skill sessions with Belfry in Minnesota, an offseason continuation of his in-season training regimen that Belfry and his team created and tailored to the Islanders winger's individual game.
"We watch every shift that [our players] take all year, and we have key metric points that are important to us that we track from a skill perspective and an execution perspective," Belfry told Lighthouse Hockey in a phone interview last week. "Now that we're in the offseason, we can tackle things that are more feel-based, that require more specific instruction, and will open up a new pathway of performance."
A Rare Combination of Size and Skill
Listed at 6-foot-2, 217 pounds by the Islanders, Belfry sees Okposo as a player with the rare combination of size and skill that enables him to enforce his will in the offensive zone in a way that only a small percentage of NHL players can.
"Kyle's biggest thing is that he has the capacity to be physically imposing with the puck and then use that physicality to be able to generate time and space [...] He can manipulate the defender in a way that allows him to make clean plays inside of a 10-foot area, even under a ton of checking pressure.
"That's what offensive-minded players do: they dictate and manipulate."
Okposo's "10-foot game" is among the best in the league according to Belfry, who's been working with him each year since the 2012 lockout. The two communicate every five games during the regular season and compare notes on what's working in Okposo's game and what isn't. This ongoing feedback keeps the Isles' assistant captain focused on the skills he's developing, even if he's not skating with Belfry during the season.
Despite missing 22 games last season because of surgery to repair a detached retina, Okposo still scored at a 0.85 points-per-game pace—up from 0.50 just two years ago—ranking him 25th among all NHL players. In comparison, Crosby (1.09), Tyler Seguin (1.08), and Art Ross Trophy winner Jamie Benn (1.06) had the league's three highest per-game scoring rates in 2014-15. That Okposo's increase in scoring rate is almost directly proportional to the amount of time he's spent working with Belfry is not a coincidence.
Today, Okposo is unlocking key parts of his offensive game through what Belfry refers to as "progressions" in his training program, parts that build on his innate in-game ability.
"Kyle, in the past couple of years, has been very good at being able to get off the half-wall or being able to get off the back-wall, and has been able to extend possession and make good 10-foot plays. Now, what we need to do is be able to give him a new way to create more of a personal threat off of those areas."
Belfry is pleased with Okposo's growth, noting several times during the interview that Okposo has overcome certain limitations and bad habits along the way. The progressive nature of Belfry's program has as its ultimate goal getting the player to understand how best to deploy his skill set and generate offense on a consistent basis. Which, in Okposo's case, should terrify opposing defenses.
It isn't easy to do, but the potential for him to dominate in the offensive zone is there. The league has seen it already; Belfry has seen it up close.
"[Taking] control of space and [doing] what you want; it's very difficult to do in the NHL and that ability is reserved for a small number of players. I believe Kyle is one of those players.
"I foresee him being able to take his game even further. This guy here has the athletic ability to become one of the toughest offensive players to handle in the NHL."