During a conversation before Saturday night's 3-1 Islanders win over the Bruins, Kyle Okposo joked that he might be better off playing wing with the red-hot Frans Nielsen rather than on the top line with John Tavares and the newly acquired Thomas Vanek.
It was a joke, clearly, and a sign that Okposo is feeling at ease through the first month of the season. The joke was further punctuated by Okposo's performance against the Bruins. He had assists on all three goals, giving him 13 assists through 14 games, good for third in the NHL.
"He's got all the tools, he's big and strong -- he's a complete player, just like John,'' said Vanek, who scored his first goal as an Islander off a pretty two-on-one feed from Okposo at 16:08 of the second period to restore the Islanders' two-goal lead.
But Okposo has never been mentioned in the same breath as Tavares. When the Islanders traded Matt Moulson, a 2014 first-rounder and a 2015 second-rounder to the Sabres for Vanek on Oct. 27, it wasn't a deal made so Vanek could play with Okposo. But the guy on Tavares' right has become as important as Tavares himself.
Okposo has slogged through two straight seasons with sluggish starts. He had no goals and three assists through the first 14 games of the 2011-12 season, then had a goal and three assists through 14 games of the shortened 48-game season last January and February.
During his horrific drought two seasons ago, his stick company sent him a batch with a lefthanded curve, a cruel mistake that highlighted what a funk the righthanded-shooting Okposo had been in.
To combat those slow starts, he changed a big portion of his offseason workout regimen.
"I had changed some things at the end of last season that I felt were working for me, so I tried to continue on with those into the summer,'' said Okposo, who declined to discuss which trainer he has been working with. He did spend a week in Toronto with Tavares and his trainer, and occasionally skated at the University of Minnesota with Vanek and several other NHLers.
"I just tried to take a look at some things I'd been doing and tried to figure out whether they were working,'' he said. "It was everything from weights to nutrition to skating.''
Those two previous seasons did feature one big change after the slow starts: Okposo finished strong. He ended 2011-12 with a career-high 21 goals, then had three goals and 16 assists in the final 29 games last season, plus three goals in the six-game playoff series loss to the Penguins.
That was the 25-year-old's chance to show the league he can be a force. Now, playing alongside two high-wattage NHL stars, Okposo is the one leading the Islanders with 17 points, one ahead of Nielsen and two ahead of Tavares.
After the game, there were no more jokes about switching lines.
"I think I'll stay where I am,'' Okposo said with a grin.
Vanek and Tavares are happy he feels that way, too.
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