Friday, December 21, 2007


I've allowed the news of Kyle Okposo quitting the Gophers to turn pro to absorb the last 48 hours or so. There have been a few posts about it on the internet, many of the good ones linked by our friend Chris Dilks.

This is possibly the first time that I have ever had to so openly and loudly defend the University of Minnesota. I'm sorry. I'm not proud of it, but some things just have to be done out of the interest of fairness.

Let me lay out a few key points.

Don Lucia is not perfect. He's a super coach, but not everyone is going to connect with him and work well in his system. Yes, he's won 500 games in 21 seasons, but the Gophers and the way they play aren't a great fit for every player. Maybe Kyle Okposo was one of them. We'll probably never know for sure, since he quit before his career even reached the halfway mark.

For every Okposo or Erik Johnson who seem unhappy with Lucia, there are countless guys who have improved, grown, and prospered as Gophers, and then moved on, either in or out of hockey. The idea that this guy can't coach is laughable, and the idea that he can't develop pro-caliber talent is simply preposterous. However, there will be some - mainly common, everyday Lucia detractors and Islander fans - who believe this is all at the feet of the Gophers' head coach.

It comes back to the common perception of the Gopher program as being arrogant. If you think Lucia and the Gophers are highly arrogant, you're more likely to believe that this is his problem and isn't the fault of the Islanders or Okposo. Otherwise, you probably find fault in the behavior of the Islanders and Okposo in this situation.

No matter who you choose to blame here, Lucia is not beyond fault. No coach can connect with everyone, and it's clear that Lucia and Okposo, for whatever reason, were not on the same page. Neither were Lucia and Garth Snow.

Kyle Okposo quit. In my world, when someone faces adversity, and they choose to walk away, they're quitting. It's not like Don Lucia asked the kid to move to defenseman. He asked one of his best players to help out at a position they were short at. Would I want a player of Kyle Okposo's type playing center? No, but Don Lucia knows just a smidge more about hockey than I do, and I trust his judgment.

If you are Kyle Okposo, and you know Mike Carman is coming back in January, this doesn't seem like a tough call. You stay in school. Work out the problems that you had in the first half (6-5-11, -9). Mature as a person and a player, and impress your coaches and teammates with your work ethic and leadership.

This is, of course, assuming that Okposo was most upset about being a natural winger playing center. We don't know that for certain. It's just speculation. He could have simply been upset with the team's overall lack of offensive production or his own personal subpar play. No matter what, Okposo faced some challenges, and chose to walk the other direction and avoid them.

Or you can quit. When the going gets tough, run away and hide. Forget the 20-some other guys with you. Just quit. They won't mind.

Sorry, Kyle, but if you think life sucks now, just wait until you struggle for four or five games, and Ted Nolan makes you watch the next three or four from a comfy seat in the press box. Unfortunately, you can't just move to the Rangers whenever convenient. You're going to have to suck it up and earn back your spot in the lineup, just like everyone else who eventually gets benched.

Garth Snow, I have one question. Who the hell do you think you are? Were these comments courtesy of Scotty Bowman, I might understand. But Garth Snow?
"Quite frankly, we weren't happy with the program there," Snow said in a telephone interview. "They have a responsibility to coach, to make Kyle a better player, and they were not doing that."

Asked for specifics, Snow said, "[Okposo] just wasn't getting better -- bottom line. And to me, that's the frustrating part. We entrusted the coach there to turn him into a better hockey player, and it wasn't happening. We feel more comfortable in him developing right under our watch.

"It's well-known in hockey circles that the situation for college players is to develop and get better," Snow said. "And quite frankly, it's a big responsibility for a college coach -- a program -- to handle these kids.

"Whether it was Kyle or another player, until things change in that program we'd probably make the same decision. There should be a coach there that looks in the mirror."
Don Lucia has won over...ah, I already mentioned that. You get the point.

Garth Snow has won...a supersecret lottery to become the Islanders' GM? Enough games to sneak into the Eastern Conference playoffs last year? Enough games to hold off Washington and avoid being the worst team in the East this year? Congrats, Garth. Great work in the front office so far. I especially liked how you gave up so much for a late-season rental of Ryan Smyth last year, then watched with horror as he signed with Colorado. Oops.

Lucia wins games. He sends players to the NHL. He graduates kids and sends them off to professional careers outside of sports. He runs a clean program. The Dinkytown incident might show that he needs to handle disciplinary issues better, but there are probably a few dozen, if not over 100, NCAA coaches who could use improvement in that area.

I get sick of hearing people criticize college coaches for not making kids "better" or "more ready for the NHL". That's not their job. The NHL is an afterthought for close to 100% of college hockey players. They'll probably never make it, and they have to come to grips with that and just work on being part of a team and trying to win. College coaches aren't paid to send kids to the NHL, AHL, ECHL, or any other pro league. They're paid to win games and graduate kids. If you are nothing but an abject failure in either area, you're probably not long for the job you have. No college coach has ever been fired because his program "didn't do a good enough job getting players ready for the NHL".

If Snow didn't like the way Okposo was developing, why was Okposo told to go back to college? The Gophers haven't really changed much about how they're using him, as Okposo was moved to center last year. It failed then, too, so it shouldn't have come as a horrible shock that it would fail now. And there was at least a puncher's chance that Okposo would get better once Carman came back. Lucia isn't going to dramatically alter his systems to accommodate Kyle Okposo, and no one should expect him to. Same for Ted Nolan with the Islanders. At some point, Okposo has to adjust to fit a system, because this hockey world won't revolve around one guy who hasn't proven himself.

Basically, Garth Snow needs to shut up. You pulled a bush-league stunt, using a loophole in the rules that should be closed, preferably by like yesterday, and you don't like getting any backlash for it. Lucia's comment (that the "Islanders put him (Okposo) in a difficult position") was well-measured and tame compared to what he could have said (things I won't recite on this site).

What is the impact on college hockey? I just don't know. I'd like to say "virtually none", because the population of guys who will pull something like this (either from Okposo's or Snow's perspective) is pretty low, as is the described behavior. However, it exists, and that's a problem.

I'm not in favor of stipulations that would force college players to stay 2-3 years before signing with NHL organizations. I have no problem with the one-and-done players (i.e. Phil Kessel), because most of them are guys their college coaches knew would be gone within a season or two. Okposo was one of those types of players, a guy Lucia probably thought he'd only have for one year.

However, when a college season starts, those players have to be untouchable for pro programs. You're going to get guys like Tyler Hirsch or Mitch Ryan or Nigel Williams who just don't think they are in a good situation or can't behave themselves enough to stay on the team. Mid-season departures will happen, but a guy like Kyle Okposo shouldn't be in line for a seven-figure reward for quitting his team and reneging on his commitment to the University of Minnesota. If you want to go play juniors, fine. But the pros should be off-limits until your college team's season is over.

Outside of this rule change perhaps becoming a bit more urgent to prevent NHL organizations from thinking that they can take advantage of the loophole, I don't see a long-term impact. The Gophers will either fall apart without perhaps their most talented offensive player, or they'll come together and rally around each other, using slogans like "We can win with the guys who want to be here".

Oh, and Kyle Okposo might just surpass Todd Bertuzzi has the most despised NHL player among fans in Minnesota. I'm guessing he won't draw many cheers if he's in the lineup for the Islanders February 9 in St. Paul.

Meantime, if you have a player on your team who has an "NYI" listed by his name on the roster (signifying that his draft rights are owned by the Islanders), look out behind you. If you don't cater to that kid's every need and want as a player, Snow could very well take him away from you. After all, the world revolves around the New York Islanders and how they want their players developed, dammit. Do what they say, do it now, and do it better than anyone else. The Islanders have a high standard for player development, as evidenced by all the homegrown superstars on their NHL roster today.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for your comments. I hope you are right that this a one-off and not the beginning of a trend.

Anonymous said...

Ultimately the decision lies with Kyle Okposo. Not the school. Not the Islanders.

Okposo did what was best for himself. I do what's best for myself. How do you approach your life?

If anyone deserves any blame it's Lucia. Not for his on-ice or off-ice efforts with Okposo. But for how he started a childish war of words over this.