Okposo to stay at Minnesota

The Gophers star will play his sophomore season in maroon and gold, not with the NHL’s New York Islanders

Mark Remme

Minnesota men’s hockey center Kyle Okposo announced Wednesday he will stay for his sophomore season with the Gophers.

Okposo, the New York Islanders’ No. 7 overall pick in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, anchored Minnesota’s first line during his first season with the maroon and gold while notching 19 goals and 21 assists.

“We’re happy,” coach Don Lucia said. “He had an awful big role for us as a true freshman, and that experience will allow him to be a bigger influence.”

Okposo’s efforts in his first year of collegiate play earned him All-Western Collegiate Hockey Association Second Team honors as well as a spot on the WCHA All-Rookie Team.

“After meeting with the Islanders to discuss my future, I felt it was in my best interest to return for my sophomore year,” Okposo said in the news release. “This is where I want to be to develop into a better player.”

Since the Gophers’ 3-2 overtime loss in the NCAA West Regional to North Dakota in March, significant questions surrounded which members of the Minnesota squad would forego eligibility for the NHL.

So far, freshman defenseman Erik Johnson – Okposo’s freshman roommate – bolted to join the St. Louis Blues. Junior blue-liner Alex Goligoski still has not announced his plans for next season.

Okposo finally removed his name from the list of uncertainty, and his decision certainly went over favorably with fellow teammates.

“He was our best forward last year so (his return) means a lot to every part of our game,” sophomore Jay Barriball said. “He can do everything; he’s one of our best penalty killers, he had 20 goals and at the end of the year he shut down (North Dakota’s) top line.”

Junior Blake Wheeler heard the news in the weight room earlier in the day, and he said Okposo’s presence on the team is an added bonus for the 2007-08 campaign.

“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.”

By retaining Okposo for at least another year, Minnesota solidified its offensive talent from a year ago. Johnson, senior defenseman Mike Vannelli and senior goalie Kellen Briggs are, for now, the only subtractions from last year’s WCHA champions.

Meanwhile, fellow WCHA foes already waved goodbye to highly talented offensive stars. Jonathan Toews of North Dakota, Jack Skille of Wisconsin and Mason Raymond of Minnesota Duluth all moved to the NHL, making the decision by Okposo even more valuable to the Gophers.

“We’re looking forward to having him back, not only as a player but as a person,” Lucia said. “He’s a great kid.”

Carman to sit

The Gophers also announced Wednesday that sophomore center Mike Carman will not play during the first semester of the 2007-08 season.

Though the terms of the suspension are unannounced, Carman, an Apple Valley native, will rejoin the team Dec. 29 and 30 at the Dodge Holiday Classic.

Carman’s undeniable presence should be missed. His spark plug-style play energized the team and, on many occasions late in the year, came up big despite anchoring the team’s checking line.

His 9 goals and 11 assists last season included a two shorthanded-goal performance against Michigan and two crucial scores in a win on the road against Colorado College in February.

But it was his late-third period tally against Air Force in the NCAA Regional, putting Minnesota ahead for good, that emphasized Carman’s ability to make big time plays at the collegiate level.

“Mike had a great year for us last year and really came on in the second half of the season,” Lucia said. “He’s a top forward for us. In the long run he’ll be able to practice with us and be able to be there for the most important part of our season.”