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Top Isles prospect Okposo practices with team, readies for NHL debut

SYOSSET, N.Y. - Mike Sillinger hobbled on crutches through the New York Islanders dressing room to introduce himself to new teammate Kyle Okposo - a hot shot prospect half his age.

Okposo graciously greeted Sillinger on Monday as he pulled off his Islanders jersey for the first time after practice. Two years after he was chosen by New York with the No. 7 pick in the draft, Okposo is set to make his NHL debut Tuesday night when the host Islanders face the Toronto Maple Leafs.

"You're going to be 20 in April, right?" Sillinger asked. "Yup, I'm 19," the reply quickly came.

"I'm 37," the veteran of 17 NHL seasons said with a laugh. "I could be your dad. I've got a kid who's 15."

And with that, Sillinger - recovering from recent hip surgery that ended his season - walked away. In a season that has quickly unravelled for the Islanders, Okposo is providing something for the franchise to look forward to.

New York was in the thick of the playoff hunt after running off six straight wins last month, but the Islanders are 2-9 since and have fallen to 13th place in the Eastern Conference. They are five spots and nine points behind Philadelphia and the post-season cutoff.

"It would be nice being in a playoff race right now, but any time you play your first game at any level - especially the NHL - it's an exciting time," Okposo said.

The forward took the ice Monday at the Islanders' suburban practice rink and skated on a line with Richard Park and Blake Comeau, another young player who recently made the same jump from Bridgeport of the AHL.

Because of injuries, there are many former Sound Tigers on the Islanders to provide familiarity to Okposo.

The right winger had a goal and five assists in seven games while playing for the United States in this year's world junior championship and was assigned to Bridgeport when the tournament ended in January.

Okposo, a St. Paul, Minn., native signed a three-year, entry-level contract with the Islanders in December, shortly after leaving the University of Minnesota.

He will earn $850,000 each year of the deal and is eligible for bonuses that could reach a maximum of another $850,000 per season. Because the Islanders brought him up to play only the final nine games, the first year of his contract won't officially kick in until next season.

"I just kind of look at it as a challenge a little bit," Okposo said. "I'm trying to kind of ignore all the hype. I'm just going to go out there and try to play my game and do the best I can to help the New York Islanders win."

In 1 1/2 seasons at Minnesota, Okposo had 26 goals with 25 assists in 58 games. As a freshman, he had 19 goals and 21 assists in 40 games.

He got off to a slow start this season with Minnesota, going eight games without a point after getting three in the opener. He had seven goals and four assists in 18 games for the Gophers.

Okposo scored eight goals and added 16 assists in 29 games in the AHL. After earning an assist in Bridgeport's victory on Saturday night, Sound Tigers coach Jack Capuano gave him the news that he was headed to the NHL.

With help from a GPS device in his car, Okposo successfully made the drive to Long Island on Sunday and geared up for practice.

"He's an exceptional player that we're looking forward to see play at the NHL level," Islanders coach Ted Nolan said. "There are certain players who have that instinct. He doesn't just skate and shoot the puck well, he also has that great hockey sense.

"Kyle has all of the ingredients good players have."

His departure from Minnesota was a bit messy as Islanders general manager Garth Snow and Gophers coach Don Lucia got into a sparring match in the media. Lucia said the Islanders put Okposo in a difficult position in getting him to leave school, while Snow criticized the coaching and development opportunities the program was providing.

Okposo wasn't willing to talk much about the circumstances that led him to leave school. When he signed with the Islanders, he hoped he'd reach the NHL this season but received no guarantees.

"It was the best thing for me to do at that time. I saw an opportunity and I took advantage of it," he said. "I thought (the decision) was validated right when I did it, otherwise I wouldn't have done it. I thought it was time for me, and I'm trying to make the most of the opportunity."


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