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As Kyle Okposo reaches 400-game mark, he's a key cog now

Islanders forward Kyle Okposo reacts after scoring a

Islanders forward Kyle Okposo reacts after scoring a goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs during the third period. (Jan. 7, 2014) Photo Credit: AP

DENVER - It's hard even for Kyle Okposo to believe that less than two years ago, he still was an underachiever. The Islanders were in the middle of a good season during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 year, but Okposo was scuffling along, with a goal and three assists in the first 20 games of a 48-game season.

"A lot of that year was a struggle for me,'' Okposo said. "It feels like a long time ago.''

Okposo came on strong in the second half of that playoff season, came on even stronger in his first playoff appearance and now is at a different level. He played his 400th NHL game Thursday night against the Avalanche, and he now is as important a cog as John Tavares, Frans Nielsen or Travis Hamonic in whatever success the Islanders can muster.

Okposo was the one and only first-round pick of the Neil Smith era, way back in 2006. He became a regular in 2008-09, also the rookie years for Nielsen and Josh Bailey, the only two other Islanders on the current roster who have reached the 400-game plateau with the team.

When the 26-year-old calls his first five seasons "rocky,'' he's not overstating matters. There were promising rookie and second seasons, with 18 and 19 goals, followed by a shoulder injury that cost Okposo the first half of 2010-11 and took away some of his scoring touch.

He finished 2011-12 with a career-best 24 goals, but that came after no goals in the first 15 games, when the Islanders needed him most. And then there was the lockout-shortened season, when his self-confidence seemed to reach a new low.

He made some changes during that season that he's long declined to describe. His work in the offseason with skills coach Darryl Belfry -- Tavares also is a client -- has helped noticeably.

Becoming Tavares' full-time wing last season hasn't hurt either, but Okposo also proved something to himself and to the league when he continued his point-a-game pace after Tavares was injured last season.

"For whatever reason, you just try to be better when things aren't going your way and you start pressing a little bit,'' he said. "But you appreciate the good times looking back. It's been up and down. You try not to think about the future too much.''

It's how he's approached the milestone he's already hit this season, having scored his 100th NHL goal against the Rangers on Oct. 14. He has one more year after this at the bargain price of $2.8 million on his contract; he's due a significant raise and there's almost no chance any team but the Islanders will be giving it to him.

As he became the 37th player to hit 400 games in an Islanders jersey, he seems to feel things have changed around him.

"This is something I haven't felt since I've been here,'' he said. "When you play on good teams, you just know. It just happens. There's an aura around good teams -- when you're on a good team, you know. And it's exciting.''

It may have taken longer than expected for both player and team to get to this point, but Okposo is pleased. Even if he's no longer a young player trying to unlock his potential.

"I was talking to Fransy the other day and we were saying you still think of yourself as one of the young guys,'' Okposo said. "You look around and you realize you're not one of the young guys anymore. Time flies.''

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