By BEN HOROWITZ
Matt Moulson ’06 is one of the prime successes in the history of Cornell hockey. Now a premier NHL center, Moulson began his path to the NHL with a standout Cornell career. His tenure included ECAC championships in his freshman and junior seasons. During his junior year, he scored 22 goals and 20 assists, which earned him first-team ECAC honors. As captain in his senior year, Moulson led the Red to the round of 8 in the NCAA tournament.
Now, things didn’t go as smoothly during his pre-Cornell years. As a 16 year old, Moulson was turned down by every single team in the highest junior hockey level, known as AAA. His small size at that age put him at a real disadvantage, but he navigated the tough times and went on to excel at the AA level before coming to Cornell.
However, his productive years with the Red were no security blanket for the grueling quest to make it in the NHL. The Pittsburgh Penguins made him a late, 9th round, draft pick, which provided no guarantees at all. In fact, the NHL draft currently only goes through seven rounds. Moulson received a higher draft pick in the National Lacrosse League, but he decided to stick with hockey. The Penguins let him go and the Los Angeles Kings picked him up, but Moulson was relegated to the minors for the next three seasons. When his contract with the Kings ended, Moulson anxiously entered the free agent market looking for suitors, and was excited to join with the Islanders after they made him an offer. His NHL career finally began at the age of 26, far later than the standard NHL young star.
One reason why he was thrilled to join the Islanders was his longtime friendship with Islanders star winger John Tavares. They knew each other growing up and practiced extensively during Tavares’ pre-draft days, but the two were slated for very different paths at the outset of their careers. Tavares was a number one pick by the Islanders in the 2009 draft and was always viewed as a future NHL great, even comparable to Sidney Crosby in talent and potential. As for Moulson, well, most saw him as a perennial fourth liner, bouncing back and forth between the NHL and the minors. He was more than grateful that the Islanders gave him an opportunity to make their NHL roster and eventually play alongside his longtime friend.
It’s not entirely surprising that NHL talent evaluators didn’t give Moulson much of a chance. On paper, his junior hockey pedigree hardly suggests an NHL future. At 6’1” and 200 pounds, Moulson neither possesses exceptional size or strength for a center, nor does he have unique speed or shooting ability. The raw scouting simply didn’t suggest a blossoming NHL career.
However, Moulson is very adept around the net. He knows how to be in the right place at the right time to score goals. While many players excel either at scoring from outside or by crashing the net, coaches have described Moulson as having a unique ability capitalize on any opportunity. This ability paid immediate dividends — he scored 30 or more goals in each of his first three NHL seasons. His strong friendship and on-ice chemistry with Tavares was a huge part of that success. Playing on the Islanders’ top line, with Tavares at wing and Moulson at center, the duo combined for 91 points last season, more than Vancouver’s famed Sedin brothers. It’s an inspiring story of two friends who took very different paths but ultimately united, each line-mate elevating the success of the other. Tavares admires Moulson’s perseverance and enjoys playing with him.
“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,” Tavares said to ESPN.com in November 2009.
Moulson’s success with the Islanders culminated in a playoff berth last season, which ended a six year playoff drought. The Islanders were no push-ever for the conference-leading Penguins, but Pittsburgh ultimately came out on top. Heading into this season, some expected the Islanders to be even better.
However, the start to their season was only average after going 4-4-3 in their first 11 games. The Islanders traded Moulson and two draft picks to the Buffalo Sabres for star winger Thomas Vaneck. Vaneck is an elite player and led the Sabres’ offense — he posted two 40 goal seasons and over 250 total goals in eight seasons with Buffalo.
The Sabres are in clear rebuilding mode, and this move gave them a first and second round pick in the coming draft plus a quality player in Moulson. It also maximized the value of Vaneck, by allowing them to benefit from a trade instead of getting nothing when Vaneck would have left via free agency at the end of this year.
The Islanders, anxious to satisfy expectations and reach the elite status that their fans are hungry for, think that this move could put them over the top. Vaneck certainly has more raw talent than Moulson and could potentially make the Islanders a better offensive team. However, Vaneck’s tenure with the Islanders is most likely temporary. He has his eyes set on returning to hometown Minnesota when he hits free agency this summer.
This was an unfortunate story, and a mistake on the part of the Islanders. Moulson really had a special connection with Tavares, and it made both players better. He was excited to be on the Islanders and was committed to their future, hoping to be a leader on the path to return the Islanders to the Stanley Cup glory of the 1980’s. The island was where he wanted to be.
Now, with his family still in Long Island and no longer with Tavares, Moulson is destined for a losing season with the rebuilding Sabres. The Islanders will likely lose Vaneck after the season, and despite their illusions, they’re still not quite good enough to really challenge the Bruins, Maple Leafs, Penguins and Capitals for a chance at the Cup.
If the Islanders had just been patient and stayed the course, Moulson and Tavares could have led them to greatness, if not this year then in the future. Hopefully they’ll have a chance to re-unite despite this move, and Moulson will overcome this challenge just as he persevered and beat the odds to become the successful NHL player that he is today.