- Katie Strang, ESPN.com
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No one could ever argue the New York Islanders are not John Tavares' team. His ascent to the captaincy has been a long time coming and a well-deserved appointment. But, his rise to recognition as one of the league's elite isn't the only reason a young, talented Islanders team has garnered a new-found sense of respect and expectation.
Sure, they boast one of the most dynamic, electrifying players around. But, they also have one of the most overlooked, underrated and quietly-consistent offensive performers in the league.
That would be Matt Moulson.
Moulson's name is referenced in tandem with Tavares so often that it's easy to lose sight of how much Moulson has contributed since joining the team as a low-risk, take-a-chance-on-him free agent in 2009.
Since his breakout first season with the Islanders -- one that coincided neatly with Tavares' rookie year -- Moulson has amassed 113 goals and 215 points. To put that in perspective, Tavares has 114 goals and 253 points in the same period.
Entering last year's lockout-shortened 2013 season, Moulson had posted three straight seasons with 30 or more goals. His 97 goals from 2009-12 were the most by an Islanders player in a three-year span since Ziggy Palffy scored 115 from 1996-99, according to Elias Sports Bureau. Jarome Iginla, Phil Kessel, Ilya Kovalchuk, Patrick Marleau, Rick Nash, Alex Ovechkin, Bobby Ryan and Steven Stamkos are the only other NHL players to match that scoring in the same span, according to Elias.
Moulson is the only one in that group who makes below $5 million per year -- he is in the last year of a three-year contract that pays him $3.13 million annually -- so it's fair to assume that he is in line for a significant payday.
Which leads us to an important question about Moulson's value to the Islanders, a question that must be addressed sooner rather than later by Islanders' brass: How much is he worth?
To suggest that the 29-year-old winger, a former standout at Cornell University who could never quite solidify his spot on the NHL roster while playing in the Kings organization, could command similar annual average values as the players listed above would be unrealistic. But he is due for a big raise.
More likely comparisons are players like Minnesota's Jason Pominville, who recently signed a five-year, $28 million extension; San Jose's Joe Pavelski, who inked a five-year, $30 million extension this summer; and Columbus' Nathan Horton, who landed a seven-year, $37.1 million contract with the Blue Jackets during July's free-agency period.
"Suffice it to say, he will do very well," surmised one agent.
What remains to be seen is whether the Islanders will be reluctant to pay him more than the $5.5 million per year that Tavares will make through the 2017-18 season (looks like a bargain now, huh?), even though that appears close to market value for Moulson.
Islanders general manager Garth Snow confirmed via text message that the team's intention is to re-sign Moulson, but Moulson's agent Wade Arnott told ESPN.com that the two sides have yet to begin discussions.
Moulson, who has a home on Long Island and a young family, re-affirmed his commitment to the team that gave him his first legitimate chance.
"I love playing on Long Island. Obviously, I want to be here," he told ESPN.com "I want to do like I do every year -- have a career year and hope everything takes care of itself."
Should the talks become protracted, however, you can expect his name to surface as the trade deadline nears.
Moulson has already dealt with that in recent years with playoff teams looking for hard-nosed, durable wingers for the stretch run.
Moulson fits that bill; his 284-game ironman streak, which ended in April when he had the flu, was the third-longest in team history, according to Elias.
"It's something that comes with the territory," Moulson said of rampant trade rumors in the past. "The first year, the first time I experienced it, you get a little nervous, but [now] I've got enough things to worry about it in my life. That's not going be something I'm gonna bother with; I'm just going to play."
With the Islanders no longer in rebuilding mode -- the team earned respect with a surprisingly-competitive first-round playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins last spring -- it doesn't make sense to part with an asset like Moulson.
For one, his production on a team that has consistently lacked secondary scoring is vital.
"I just don't know how you'd replace him," said one Western Conference scout.
Perhaps just as important is his undeniable chemistry with Tavares. The two, who were friends through Moulson's younger brother even before playing together on the Isles, play apart about as infrequently as the Sedin twins in Vancouver and have developed a sort of symbiotic vision together on the ice.
Some refer to it as a sort of sixth sense they have from playing together so long and believe the Islanders may be wary of taking Tavares' veritable security blanket away from him.
"There's no doubt that will have a bearing on things," said one person familiar with the situation.
There's no disputing that Moulson and Tavares have been mutually beneficial to each other on the ice, but it extends beyond the ice as well.
The precocious Tavares has always been pretty reserved. As he matured from the shy 19-year-old prodigy he was when he first broke into the league, he became more comfortable with himself. He blossomed into a natural leader. Moulson's outgoing, gregarious personality has always been the appropriate ying to Tavares' yang.
In addition to being virtually inseparable linemates, the two are best friends. They lived together as tenants in Doug Weight's house during their first season in Long Island. Tavares is even the godfather to Moulson's 14-month-old daughter, Mila.
"There was someone that right away I was really close to and could relate to and can go to with any questions or any issues or wanting to talk about something," Tavares told ESPN.com. "He's a really close friend and it definitely was huge. [It is] even now."
This isn't to say the two players need each other to have success. They don't. But their preference is certainly to remain in concert.
"I think it's no secret I hope [Moulson] is here beyond this season and for many years," Tavares said. "We understand each other very well and have great chemistry, so I really hope he can stay around, not just for my benefit, but the team's."
Both have been so integral to the team's recent revitalization that neither can imagine what it would be like if they were to play apart.
"It'd be tough," Tavares said. "I try not to think about it."
Said Moulson: "Hopefully, we never have to go down that road."
12dScott Burnside and Craig Custance