There were high hopes that 2005 USHL Entry Draft first overall pick Kyle Okposo would help lead the Des Moines Buccaneers to success after a dismal 2004-05. Not only did Okposo help return the Bucs to near the top of the USHL, he has established himself as one of the top prospects eligible for the 2006 NHL Entry Draft.
After scoring 27 goals and 31 assists in 50 games in 2005-06, Okposo was named to the USHL First All-Star Team, the All-Rookie Team, and the USHL Rookie of the Year. Skating with 19-year-old center Trevor Lewis, who was named the USHL Player of the Year, Okposo was Des Moines’ clutch scorer this season with eight game-winning goals and helped lead Des Moines to the USHL East Division Co-Championship after the team finished with the worst record in the league in 2004-05. Skating at even strength, the power play, and often on the penalty kill with Lewis, the tandem became the league’s most dangerous duo, as Lewis finished second in USHL scoring with 35 goals and 40 assists in 56 games.
Okposo missed a few games in late December and early January while playing for Team USA at the Viking Cup in Camrose, Alberta. The St. Paul, Minn., native’s three goals and seven assists in six games at the tournament paced the red, white, and blue in team scoring. The seven-team tournament was not Okposo’s first time playing for Team USA, as he scored five goals and three assists for Team USA at the U18 Junior World Cup in Slovakia in August, including a goal in exhibition against Slovakia.
One of the USHL’s top point-getters in 2005-06, Okposo was one of Shattuck-St. Mary’s top scorers in 2004-05 under the guidance of head coach Tom Ward. Okposo was third in Shattuck prep scoring with 47 goals and 45 assists in 65 games, behind seniors Michael Gergen, a second round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, and Jonathan Toews, a forward at the University of North Dakota. Both Toews and Okposo, now good friends, are projected by International Scouting Service to go early in the first round of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. In fact, Okposo should easily become the highest drafted player ever taken directly out of the USHL after playing a full USHL season, a mark currently held by Landon Wilson, who was drafted with the 19th pick of the 1993 NHL Entry Draft by the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The 6’0, 195-pound Okposo is an offensive power forward. Okposo uses his size well in open ice and along the boards to shield the puck and fend off defenders. Okposo is dangerous coming off the boards or out of the corners with the puck, as he can snipe the puck over the goalie’s shoulder top shelf, use the wrap-around, battle his way to the net, and has developed his offensive vision enough to find teammates open for passes, as was often the case with Lewis. The ace stickhandler never gives up on getting or maintaining control of the puck and willingly ventures into traffic, allowing him to win most one-on-one battles anywhere on the ice. Defensively, Okposo has sufficient defensive awareness to have been a regular on the Des Moines penalty kill and he also throws out the big hit now and again.
Hockey’s Future recently caught up with Okposo and discussed his preparation at Shattuck, his dominating rookie season in the USHL, a potential scare late in the season, his commitment to the University of Minnesota, and his goal to play in the NHL.
HF: You scored 27 goals and 31 assists in 50 games as a 17-year-old rookie in the USHL, did you expect, coming into the USHL this year, to dominate the way you have?
KO: I kind of expected it. I thought it would be a little bit more of an adjustment, but I thought I adjusted well at the beginning of the year. Me and Trevor played really well the whole year and were able to put up some points. I thought it was a good regular season.
HF: Coming out of Shattuck, a highly-respected program, how did playing there helped prepare you for this level?
KO: I thought it was great. I can’t say enough about Coach Ward and just how he taught me the game. He taught me how to play to win a championship and just the right way to play hockey. So, I think that was big.
HF: You mentioned Trevor Lewis earlier, what are some of the things about Trevor that allowed you two to have such chemistry so early in the season?
KO: Well, we always knew where each other were. Right from the first game, I think our first shift together we scored. After that, everything just clicked. We both work well together in the corners, we both go to the net. It’s easy to play with him.
HF: Both you and Trevor played for Team USA at the Viking Cup, you played for Team USA at other tournaments, what does it mean to you to represent Team USA?
KO: There’s nothing like it. Just putting on that jersey, hearing the anthem before the game, I just can’t describe the feeling that I get just putting on our colors. I feel so proud to represent my country.
HF: How does the international competition compare to what you’ve played at Shattuck and in the USHL?
KO: I think it’s a little bit of a step up. Obviously, when you’re playing for your country, the bar is risen a little bit, so you have to step your own game up. I’ve been fortunate to play well in some of those tournaments.
HF: You seem to have a lot of confidence in your stickhandling, you never seem to give up on the puck, what are some of the things you did in your youth and earlier in your career that make it so that you have so much confidence with the puck?
KO: Well (chuckling), since I was about eight years old, I’ve been stickhandling in my basement for two or three hours a day, just practicing, practicing and practicing. It’s paid off.
HF: What are some of the things you’ve been working on this year in the USHL?
KO: Definitely playmaking. My playmaking ability, using my teammates, and trying not to do so much one-on-one. I think that part of my game has improved a lot.
HF: You could have played another year at Shattuck, what was it that made you decide to come down to the USHL?
KO: It’s just a level up. I think the level up is tremendous, playing against older kids, stronger kids every night. Every night someone is playing for something. Everybody out here, guys I’m playing against, want a scholarship.
HF: Speaking of scholarships, you decided to commit to the University of Minnesota, what was it that made you decide to become a Golden Gopher?
KO: It’s just where I grew up, watching those guys, they’ve always been my heroes. Hopefully I can be that to some kid.
HF: What are some of your expectations and hopes with college hockey?
KO: Well, I want to go in there and try and have an immediate impact and just keep everything simple right away and try and go into my role, play hard, and do what I can to help the team win.
HF: You mentioned you hope to become a player kids look up to, who were some of the NHLers and other players you looked up to growing up?
KO: Peter Forsberg for the last however many years and Sidney Crosby when he was at Shattuck. I always competed with him for points and everything, but mostly Forsberg.
HF: Who were some of the other players at Shattuck that you think have a good chance of going a long way?
KO: Johnny Toews for one. Me and him have remained really, really close, and we talk pretty much before each one of our games. He’s a phenomenal player and he’s a great kid too. I can’t say enough about him.
HF: How about Angelo Esposito?
KO: I played with him last year, we were on the same team. He was a good player. He kind of had to fit into the role a little bit with the team, we had a lot of skilled guys last year. It was a bit of an adjustment from where he was, but I think he’s a really great player.
HF: I understand that in seventh grade you sat out a year to play basketball?
KO: Yeah, I didn’t play that winter. I just kind of got a little sick of it. I don’t think that’s ever going to happen again, I love it too much.
HF: What else drew you back to hockey?
KO: Just a love of the game, I missed it. Actually, playing on the outdoor rinks. That’s really what brought me back. That’s what I think of every time I’m a little down or something, just having fun, going outdoors.
HF: A lot of different scouting services project you to go in the first round of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, what does that mean to you and do you ever think about your potential future as an NHLer?
KO: I think about that. It’d be a great honor to go that high, but I don’t really look at it as going to the NHL. I just look at it as I have a chance, I have a chance to be a good player. I just want to keep improving every day and hopefully some day I can get there.
HF: You suffered a shoulder injury in early March, it seemed like a harmless play, how frustrating was it to be out that little bit down the stretch?
KO: That was tough. I just fell on my elbow a little bit wrong and my shoulder popped back, but it’s good now. So, most of it was just precautionary sitting out. It’s 100 percent now.
HF: What are your personal goals with hockey?
KO: Personal goals would be, obviously, to be in the NHL, but not just be there, but to be a player and have an impact at that level. That’s been my ultimate goal since I was a little kid. I don’t just want to be there, I want to be a player.
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