You might not have noticed – hockey fans don’t typically notice what’s going on in Uniondale, NY – but Kyle Okposo is putting together a seriously impressive season for the New York Islanders. Naturally, it begs the question: is this a breakout year for Okposo and the kind of standard he’ll meet for the duration of his career, or merely the product of a perfect storm?
Whatever the answer (and we’ll get to it), one thing is clear: Okposo is doing things he’s never done before in the NHL. His numbers this season far exceed his career averages, which, on the whole, speak to a solid but unspectacular forward. Entering 2013-14, Okposo had 185 career points over 319 games, an average of .58 points per game.
In 69 games this season, Okposo has 69 points, a per-game average that you can probably compute by yourself. After never ranking near the top of the offensive charts in his first five NHL seasons, the winger suddenly finds himself tied for seventh in the league in scoring, surrounded by the likes of Patrick Kane, Alex Ovechkin and Corey Perry. If it’s true that you are who you walk with, then the 25-year-old Okposo is one of the premier forwards in the game.
(Quick post-Olympics spout from a still-not-over-it fan: with 69 points, Okposo is tied for second among all Americans in scoring. He is one of only three Americans among the NHL’s top-25 point-getters, a club that is almost exclusively Canadian. While most of his countrymen have fallen behind the superstars to the north, Okposo has stayed right with them, proving that he belongs in their company. That he was left off the U.S. roster in Sochi is fairly ridiculous when you consider all that.)
So what’s driving Okposo’s spectacular season? Well you can start with a long, versatile skillset that makes him a dangerous player in a number of ways. He’s a good skater, silky-smooth puck-handler and creative passer. (If you’ve ever doubted his offensive ability, go ahead and search “Kyle Okposo highlights” on YouTube and check back in a few hours later. The dude has some flair.) But his game isn’t limited to his exploits with the puck. Okposo relishes the physical aspect of hockey as well, and is quick to dirty his nose in the corner or in front of the net.
In short, he’s a goal scorer with a grinder’s mentality, a mold that is quickly fading in today’s NHL. While most players, it seems, excel in one area of the rink, Okposo is capable just about everywhere. He’s as mean as he is skilled, just as eager to muck it up after the whistle as he is to take off on a breakaway. This combination of talent and toughness allows Okposo to find the scoresheet in various ways, a threat no matter where the play takes him.
But Okposo has always been this type of player – he’s never had this type of season. As unique as his skillset may be, there has to be another way to account for the surge in his production. Is Okposo benefitting from some statistical anomaly? Is he racking up points in low-leverage situations? Is here merely a good player propped up by a terrific linemate? (One might call this the Chris Kunitz Law.)
The first number to look at when a player starts producing above his usual rate is shooting percentage. If abnormally high, it suggests there’s a good deal of luck involved in the sudden burst of offense, and the player will come back down to earth as his shooting percentage does the same. An average shooting percentage rests right around eight percent; Okposo’s is 11.6 percent, 21st in the NHL (per extraskater.com).
Well of course it’s high, you say – Okposo is one of the leading scorers in the NHL. But there’s not really a correlation between shooting percentage and goals. Of the top-ten goal scorers this season, only two (Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry) find themselves in the top-10 for shooting percentage as well. Okposo’s gaudy offensive numbers don’t necessitate a high shooting percentage – so it might be fair to say that he’s been the beneficiary of some shoddy goaltending.
Here’s the thing though: outside of last season, Okposo has always had a high shooting percentage. His career mark sits at 10.5 percent, not so far off from his percentage this year. Is he a historically lucky player? Probably not – it simply may be that Okposo, by virtue of being a good shooter and, moreover, knowing when to shoot, has achieved a shooting percentage above the league average. His 2013-14 season passes the first test.
How about situational play? Is Okposo piling up points on the power play? Sometimes a player’s stats, when aided by heavy power play usage, make him look better than he truly is. In the case of Okposo, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Just 15 of his 69 points (22 percent) this season have come on the man advantage, the third lowest percentage among players with 65 points or more. Okposo has earned his numbers this season, putting up points the hard way.
Okay, then it has to be related to his linemate(s), right? For most of the season, Okposo played with John Tavares and Thomas Vanek, the seeming third wheel on one of the most dynamic lines in the league. Put anyone – heck, even Matt Martin – alongside Tavares and Vanek, and odds are that lucky man will start racking up points too.
But Tavares went down for the season back in February, Vanek was shipped out of town in early March and Okposo, left to fend for himself, has simply kept on producing. With Tavares, Okposo had 59 points through 59 games; without him, he has ten points through ten games. With Vanek, he had 49 points in 51 games; without him, he has eight points through six games.
It’s clear, then, that this breakout season for Okposo is for real – there’s nothing unsustainable, phony or lucky about it. Quite simply, the Minnesota product has come into his own this year, a full blossoming of talent that makes sense given his age. When Tavares hits the ice again next season, it will be fair to say that your New York Islanders boast two of the best forwards in the NHL. Imagine that.