Sunday, November 22, 2009
Long shot Moulson determined for more
By Scott Burnside
ST. LOUIS -- At the risk of offending Linda Hamilton and the entire Moulson family and that furry guy in the old television series (Ron Perlman) and maybe even John Tavares, there is more than a little beauty-and-beast action with the New York Islanders' dynamic duo of top rookie Tavares and out-of-nowhere winger Matt Moulson.
Now, we're talking beauty and beastliness in a relative way as opposed to physical attributes. Let's be clear. But put it this way: Moulson, the hitherto anonymous 26-year-old winger who quickly has become the cheese to Tavares' macaroni through the first quarter of this surprising season for the Islanders, was drafted in the ninth round of the 2003 draft, 263rd overall. They don't even have a ninth round anymore. GMs figured it was better to pack up early and go golfing or head to a bar than stick around and draft players in the ninth round.
Long shot? Lacrosse managers thought more about Moulson than NHL GMs did, as the National Lacrosse League's Rochester Knighthawks selected him in the fourth round.
But here he is, not merely hanging around the NHL picking up a few fourth-line minutes here and there but playing top-line minutes with Tavares, the NHL's leading rookie scorer and Moulson's former training partner.
Does Moulson, who has 18 points, including five multipoint efforts, through the Islanders' first 23 games, get tired of being treated like the hockey guy who fell to Earth?
"It doesn't really bother me," he told ESPN.com. "I'm here now in the NHL. I guess I have an interesting story to tell. It's always interesting for people to find out things like that and maybe a good story for some younger kids."
In some ways there is, along with the beauty-and-the-beast motif, a little aligning of the hockey stars, too.
Moulson's younger brother, Chris, now a freshman at Moulson's alma mater, Cornell, played youth hockey with Tavares. Then Matt Moulson ended up training and skating with Tavares for a number of years leading up to Tavares' No. 1 selection in this past June's entry draft.
So was this meant to be, he and Tavares tearing it up in NHL rinks hither and yon?
"I don't think I could have made this prediction. It would have been nice if I did. I would have probably eased a lot more stress off my shoulders in the free-agency time," Matt Moulson joked.
Indeed, an apprehensive Moulson was in regular touch with agent Wade Arnott as the July free-agency period approached and his contract with the Los Angeles Kings expired. "I was bugging him every day, 'Where do you think I'm going to end up?'" Moulson said.
The day before free agency, Moulson called Tavares to say there might be a fit with his new team, the Islanders. "He [said], 'Sign with the Islanders.' I was like, 'Well, I've got to get an offer first,'" Moulson said.
Tavares was among the first people Moulson called when his deal was completed during that first week of free agency.
"I was right on the phone to Johnny, and it was a pretty good moment," Moulson said. "I still didn't know what was going to come of it, but I was excited."
Fate? Or maybe just that coach Scott Gordon had to put someone on the ice with Tavares and was familiar with Moulson from his time as a coach in the American Hockey League.
"Matt was a guy that I knew from my days in Providence when he was playing in Manchester. I thought he had the ability to score. But I went back and I watched some of the goals in the NHL, which were goal scorer-type goals, and as it turned out through exhibition, he was our leading goal scorer," Gordon told ESPN.com.
"The thing that's good about Matt is if he's not scoring from the tops of the circle, he's scoring from the front of the net. That ability to score from two different places, you're talking about two different types of players. Some guys don't like to go into traffic. But the fact he was willing to do that, I thought it would be a good complement for John."
"We didn't have a lot of options," Gordon added.
After a stretch during which the Islanders went 3-0-2, they have lost two straight. But that comes with the territory for a young team still trying to figure out how to win. Before Saturday's 4-1 loss to St. Louis, Blues coach Andy Murray praised the Isles and said they were among the top teams in the NHL in the past 14 games.
"They play a great, up-tempo game. I love how hard they play and how fast they play," Murray said.
One of the reasons the Isles have been a pleasant surprise is Gordon now has three distinct pairs of forwards he can employ starting with Moulson and Tavares.
"It's been a lot of fun. It's a good story, both paths that we took," Tavares told ESPN.com. "We know each other well. We think the game a lot alike and get along really well off the ice, so it's been great and it's great for him. Shows really how far he's come," Tavares said.
|Matt Moulson, right, has been more than a complementary player to John Tavares.|
"He really has proven himself the tough way. He's a really good character guy. He doesn't expect anything, he doesn't expect anything to come easy."
Although Moulson and Tavares have developed a unique bond, Moulson has a clear understanding of how he came to be here and what it will take to keep him here.
For instance, some players pattern themselves after Jarome Iginla or Vincent Lecavalier or Joe Sakic. Moulson? He studied Minnesota Wild forward Andrew Brunette.
"Actually, when people kept cutting down my skating, cutting down my skating, Mike O'Connell, when he was with L.A., he told me to look at a player named Andrew Brunette," Moulson said, crediting the former Bruins GM who is now with the Kings' player-development staff.
"I used to tape all his games and watch them and watch what he did," Moulson said. "[Brunette] may not be the fastest guy out there, but he's great at protecting the puck and making plays around the net and getting to the net. He was up and down in the AHL as well starting his career, and he's made a pretty good player of himself and pretty good name for himself in this league. He's someone I followed closely."
This week Moulson met his guide, who of course had no idea he'd had any impact whatsoever on his career.
"He gave me a stick last night," Moulson said happily.
You mean Brunette stuck him, as in speared him?
"No, no, he signed a stick and gave it to me last night. I got it this morning," Moulson said. "I got it this morning, and I had a grin from ear to ear. I told him he was one of my favorite players."
In spite of or perhaps because of his arduous road to the NHL, there is nothing about Moulson that suggests contentment. Perhaps that's because Gordon told Moulson during training camp that to be content is to be gone.
"I told him when he made the team out of camp, 'Treat every day like it's your last, because you don't know,'" Gordon said. "'You battled high odds to make the team, but that doesn't mean tomorrow won't be a different day. You have to prove everybody right that we made the right decision every single day.'"
Whether because of fear or hunger, Moulson said he's nowhere near satisfied.
"It's funny because I think I do think like that," he said. "Almost every day I'm thinking, 'It's got to be today, got to get pumped tonight.' It's a good thing. I'm hungry every game. Not to say I wouldn't be, but it's just kind of my personality. I'm not going to be satisfied. That's Johnny as well. We're both never satisfied.
"It seems funny from where I started from until now. I get two goals against Boston [Monday night], and I'm upset because I wanted a third one. I'm not disappointed but wanting more after that. Coming from where I came from, I never thought I'd be wanting more after a two-goal game in the NHL."
|Although John Tavares' path to the NHL was much easier, he admires Moulson's determination and work ethic. |
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.