NHL will wait as Okposo returns for at least one more year

The Minnesota forward was drafted in the first round last season but returns to the Gophers.

Brian Deutsch

Last summer when most hockey fans were dreaming of next-year’s gonna-bes and last year’s should-have-beens, Minnesota forward Kyle Okposo was weighing a decision that would have been easy for most people.

The sophomore could have passed on the rest of his college days and instead signed with the New York Islanders in the NHL.

Playing at hockey’s highest level might have been the easy choice, but for Okposo, it wasn’t the right one.

“I’ve always wanted to play here (at the University) and one year is way too short,” he said.

Okposo joined the Gophers last year after being drafted seventh overall by the Islanders in the first round of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft.

The St. Paul native made an immediate impact, ranking second on the team in points, amassing 40, which included 19 goals and 21 assists behind fellow freshman skater Jay Barriball and earning All-WCHA Second Team and WCHA All-Rookie Team honors.

But coach Don Lucia said last week that Okposo’s contributions to the team off the ice are just as important to what he does on it.

“Kyle is going to make the right choice off the ice and he’s going to make the right choice on the ice,” Lucia said. “He’s everything you want in someone who’s going to represent the University of Minnesota hockey team.”

Having players leave school early for the NHL is nothing new for Minnesota – the team has numerous former players in professional organizations.

Thomas Vanek and Phil Kessel are arguably two of the Gophers’ most talented former players that decided to turn pro and forego the rest of their college careers.

Both will see time in the NHL this season – Vanek with the Buffalo Sabres and Kessel with the Boston Bruins.

“It’s just a tribute to our program that we are able to lose three or four guys, year in and year out, and then have some freshmen come in and contribute,” junior forward Blake Wheeler said. “That’s the way we have to look at it; it’s exciting to get out there and try to fill those shoes.”

That will include filling the shoes of former Minnesota defenseman Erik Johnson, who was drafted No. 1 overall in the 2006 Entry Draft and decided not to return this season in favor of joining the St. Louis Blues.

“There’s always going to be dialog between players that were drafted and NHL teams,” Lucia said. “It’s one of those situations where they listen to what the team has to say and sit down and talk to us a little bit and talk to their family and make a decision that they feel is in their best interest.”

However, Okposo isn’t the first Minnesota skater to put the NHL on hold in favor of returning to college.

Jordan Leopold turned down an offer from the Calgary Flames after his junior season with the Gophers.

The next year, Leopold became the first player in Minnesota history to win both the Hobey Baker Award and the NCAA Championship in the same season.

Leopold eventually made it to the NHL, where he now plays for the Colorado Avalanche.

Okposo wouldn’t say if he has his sights set on the Hobey Baker, in fact he barely commented on personal goals except to say they are locked away in his underwear drawer.

He did talk about the team’s goals of returning to the Frozen Four and hopefully winning a national championship – something Okposo thinks this year’s team is skilled enough to accomplish.

“Our goal is to always post more banners,” Okposo said. “We posted a couple last year, but we’re eager and hungry for more.”