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Kyle Okposo and the Order of the Islanders: Saying goodbye as a shared journey ends

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From Minnesota to Uniondale to Brooklyn, no player has mirrored the Islanders like Kyle Okposo has.

Time to grab the Hogwarts Express.
Time to grab the Hogwarts Express.
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

My favorite piece of Kyle Okposo trivia is that he was drafted by Neil Smith in the most significant transaction of his scant month-and-change as Islanders general manager.

2006 NHL Entry Draft Photo by Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images

Thirteen days after the 2006 draft, Smith was relived of his duties by owner Charles Wang and replaced by Garth Snow, who, the day before, was team’s back-up goalie. Okposo, then playing for the University of Minnesota, must have been wondering what the hell was going on out there on Long Island. So was I.

In the intervening 10 years, the only other homegrown Islander to have seen the franchise change as much as Okposo has is Frans Nielsen. They first joined a directionless roster of veteran mercenaries, cut their teeth as NHLers as the team bottomed-out, and grew as players during the interminable crawl back to respectability behind John Tavares, an exceptional addition who would become a dear friend. Today, they're the veteran leadership of a team finally looking to turn the corner to contenderhood.

But both Okposo and Nielsen are unrestricted free agents and it looks like Okposo will be the odd man out. Behind Steven Stamkos, he is the best offensive player available to sign this summer. With only so much money under the salary cap and with other players to sign, the belief is that Okposo can and will command more money from another team than Snow is willing to pay. This is most likely his final week as an Islander.

Despite how often it has been written about, this isn’t exactly "news," with rumblings having stretched back to last summer. Just because I can expect the split and understand (at least sort of) why it's happening, that doesn’t mean I have to like it. I don’t. I’m going to miss Kyle Okposo beyond just what he brought as a player.

He’s not the first to be priced off the Islanders, but unlike, say, Matt Moulson or P.A. Parenteau, Okposo was drafted, developed and hammered into an NHL player all while wearing Islanders colors. From the time of his drafting, he was considered a member of "TEH CORE!," the kind of player a team builds around and who will be there when they finally reach the mountaintop.

The problem is that the trip to the mountaintop is a long one and there’s no guarantee you'll even get there. But watching Okposo grow as a player has been one of the best things about following the Islanders’ current incarnation. And in a lot of way, his career arc has mirrored his team's trajectory.

It wasn't always smooth for either. After two promising early seasons, he dealt with a shoulder injury that cost him half a season. He bounced back the following year but crashed hard after the lockout with just four goals in the shortened regular season. Meanwhile, any flashes of Islanders competency were balanced by long, sad, frustrating losing streaks and setbacks.

Then, two things happened. One, Okposo and his wife welcomed their first child, a huge life event chronicled in the NHL Revealed series on NBCSN. Then, in Game 2 of their playoff series against Pittsburgh and with the Islanders already down a game and looking extremely overmatched, Okposo bloodied then-Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen in a sudden and shocking fight.

From that moment on, for whatever reason, Okposo became the player we always wanted him to be: Consistent, assertive and a person the Islanders could lean on to carry them when necessary. They didn’t win that series, but the bar was raised. For them, for Okposo and for us fans.

The next season was Okposo's best as a pro (27g-42a-69p) while the Islanders disappointed with a return to the lottery. He was on his way to another career year the following season when an eye injury derailed him for a month. But he recovered and helped the team reach 100 points in back-to-back seasons for first time in 33 years and the second round of the playoffs for the first time in 23 years. Okposo became the Perfect Tommy to Tavares' Buckaroo Banzai.

Which brings me to my second favorite piece of Kyle Okposo trivia (skip to 2:15):

Kyle Okposo -  a college standout, a professional athlete, a multimillionaire, a husband, a father (now of two) and a valued New York Islander - is also a big ol' geek. In his case, it's Harry Potter. In your case, it might be something (or somethings) else. But that's the kind of down-to-Earth quality that makes Okposo a player you're glad to have spent a lot of time watching.

As his team improved around him, Okposo the player and the person flourished in front of our eyes. I'll cheer for both wherever they end up.