Okposo to stay for his sophomore year

The seventh overall draft pick by the New York Islanders will look to gain a bigger leadership role in the 2007-08 season.

Mark Remme

Following its March 25 overtime loss to North Dakota in the NCAA West Regional final, the Minnesota men’s hockey team entered an offseason with the distinct possibility that its top underclassmen wouldn’t return.

And when defenseman Erik Johnson announced he signed with the St. Louis Blues in April, that possibility started to become reality.

But last Wednesday changed that perspective. Center Kyle Okposo opted to come back to the Gophers and, in the process, brought enough firepower with him to increase the chances of the team hanging its first NCAA championship banner since 2003.

“We’re going to talk about (a title) from the beginning; I don’t think we did enough last year,” Okposo said. “We’re the two-time defending WCHA champs, and we won the Broadmoor Trophy (as WCHA Final Five champions) last season. We’ve got the right guys to do it.”

Okposo’s words echo one of his personal goals in his sophomore season. The freshman sensation – who scored 19 goals and 21 assists, many of which in spectacular fashion – said he hopes to improve his leadership role on the 2007-08 squad.

It’s a part of Okposo’s game that he admitted he wasn’t completely comfortable pursuing as a freshman, but he’s willing to step up and become at least a leader-by-example in the upcoming season.

But by his current and former teammates’ perspective, he might already be there.

Johnson, who roomed with Okposo in Territorial Hall last year, said he’s seen Okposo’s ability to perform on the ice since they began skating with each other in summer leagues at age 10.

It’s Okposo’s passion on the ice that Johnson said makes him a natural leader.

“Kyle has a chance at being assistant captain, actually,” Johnson said. “He rubs off on people on the ice – his passion and how he wants to succeed. It’s a motivating factor just watching him play.”

Okposo, the seventh overall draft pick by the New York Islanders in last year’s NHL Entry Draft, showed all the elements of a successful forward during his first year with the Gophers.

His play against North Dakota’s top line in the playoffs allowed the Gophers to win the Broadmoor Trophy and nearly a berth in the NCAA Frozen Four. Okposo went head-to-head with Sioux center Jonathan Toews, who recently signed with the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks.

As a result, Okposo earned a spot on both the All-WCHA second team and the WCHA all-rookie team.

Johnson said it’s a sign of good things to come.

“He’s going to absolutely dominate the college level next year,” he said. “He should be an All-American. This year is going to be ridiculously easy for him.”

Okposo was amused by Johnson’s comment but said another year in the collegiate ranks will be a challenge to do more for the team.

“It wasn’t easy this year and it’s not going to be any easier next year, but it’s going to be a lot of fun,” Okposo said. “Now I know what defensemen (in the WCHA) are like and how they play.”

Forwards Blake Wheeler and Jay Barriball acknowledged Okposo’s skills as an all-around player, not only on the offensive end but also defensively and on the penalty kill.

“He’s a guy who some of the guys on the team look up to,” Wheeler said. “He brings it every night and plays hard. You can’t say enough about what he did for us as a freshman.”

Just one player with remaining eligibility is still in question. All-America defenseman Alex Goligoski hasn’t made a decision to stay or enter the NHL after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery.

But while Goligoski’s future isn’t solidified, Okposo’s sophomore year in maroon and gold is set.

And for coach Don Lucia, who Okposo said he had “good talks” with leading up to his decision, the future is already looking pretty bright.

“We’re looking forward to having him back, not only as a player but as a person,” Lucia said. “He had an awfully big role for us as a true freshman, and that experience will allow him to be a bigger influence.”