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Moulson is Bear Necessity

With an eye toward his future, Moulson heads to Hershey to help mold Caps' kids

by Mike Vogel @VogsCaps / washingtoncaps.com

For a guy drafted in the ninth round (263rd overall) of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, Matt Moulson has had a heck of an NHL career for himself. Drafted after his freshman season at Cornell, Moulson went on to play four seasons for Big Red, graduating from the Ivy League school and embarking upon his pro hockey career in 2006.

By that time, the team that drafted him - the Pittsburgh Penguins - had opted not to sign him. He went through that summer of 2006 without any firm knowledge of where he would start his career; it wasn't until Sept. 1 of that year that the Los Angeles Kings inked him to a deal shortly before the start of training camp.

From there, he went on to play 650 NHL games. Although 262 players heard their names called before his in that 2003 Draft - one of the most fertile crops of NHL talent in recent history - only 31 players from that draft class have played more games in the league.

Although he last played in the league early in the 2017-18 season with Buffalo, Moulson - now 35 - is still going strong in the AHL. After putting up 28 goals and 62 points in 68 games with the Ontario Reign last season, Moulson signed an AHL deal to come east in 2019-20. He'll be playing for Washington's AHL Hershey affiliate.

When Moulson showed up for Caps training camp in Arlington in early September, only Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie and John Carlson had more NHL experience than Moulson. But Moulson wasn't here to try to make the Washington roster; he was signed strictly for Hershey. He was among the first group of players reassigned to AHL camp last Thursday, and he did not appear in any exhibition games.

Don't let any of that fool you. Moulson is expected to be an integral part of the Hershey team this season, both on and off the ice.

The Bears had a large crop of first-year pros last season, and they have several more freshmen among their ranks in 2019-20. Hershey also lost four of its top five scorers from last season and a number of its veteran leaders, and that's where Moulson comes in.

"First off," says Bears coach Spencer Carbery, "the youth of our forward group as a whole, with potentially nine guys in our lineup that would be in their first or second year of professional hockey. So that speaks to how important it is to have a few guys who have been through it, can help them along, can share with them their experiences, and then just be someone the young guys can look up to and watch with their daily routine - how they go through adversity, how they practice, how they prepare.

"All of that stuff is so valuable, and we saw that last year. And after losing guys like Nathan Walker, Jayson Megna, Riley Barber and Aaron Ness, those guys were instrumental - not only in our performance on the ice, but also in our young guys coming along in the second part of the year. And Matt's story is incredible. And now where he is at in his career, his approach is just so unique. You don't find many athletes that have gone through what he has gone through and have come out on the other side with just an optimistic outlook and a love for what he does, and that's why I think it's a perfect fit."

Some older players tend toward bitterness as their career winds down, especially if they're not among the select few who are able to engineer a soft landing and/or smooth transition away from the NHL. Moulson isn't that guy. He is no longer playing hockey at the highest level, but he still loves the game as much as he ever has, and he still wants to win. That is why he's still lacing up the blades.

"I loved playing for Mike Stothers in Ontario the last two years," says Moulson. "But the career is winding down, and I'm getting a little older, and the family and kids are getting a little older. I wanted to come back out east. My two brothers-in-law [Kings goalie Jonathan Quick is one of them] have a couple of championships between them, so I wanted one and I thought Hershey would be a great place. It seemed like a great fit.

"Obviously, the Capitals organization is unbelievable and Hershey has a great history behind it in doing well. In the end, I just thought it was a great fit for myself and I was really excited to be able to sign with them."

Moulson understands that his NHL days are almost certainly behind him. So are the days of first-class travel and top hotels. What keeps him going now that he is playing three games in as many nights some weekends, and spending long hours riding buses overnight?

"I think first off, probably just a love for the game," he says. "I don't think you can do it or would be doing it if you didn't love playing the game and love the atmosphere around being on a team, especially a winning one. I think wanting to win never gets old; no matter how old you are, you always want to win. I think that's a big thing for me. I still want to be able to do well, and produce, and help a team win."

This past summer, Moulson spent some time in Hershey, and that visit convinced him to make the AHL's smallest market his next hockey home.

"I had a chance to go to Hershey this summer," Moulson recounts. "I took my family there. We went up to Hershey Park, and I also had a chance to sit down with Spencer Carbery, so I think first and foremost, I'm going to try to produce there and help the team win. And then something I enjoy a lot is trying to help younger guys with different things, whether it's on the ice or off the ice. I think that's something that I've always enjoyed doing, and I love helping any way I can. I don't think I had to really be told what's expected of me, I think I already kind of assumed that, and I'm excited to do that."

The Caps know the value of having a veteran with cachet and gravitas to help nurture and guide what is an otherwise mostly young and green group. A little more than a decade ago, Moulson was one of those young guys himself, trying to find his way in the game and to carve out his own unlikely path to the NHL.

On the strength of some good seasons with AHL Manchester, Moulson broke in with the Kings in 2007-08 but couldn't get the traction needed to stay in the league. He managed six goals and 10 points in 29 games over parts of two seasons with Los Angeles.

"When I was in L.A., Rob Blake was there as the captain," Moulson remembers. "He was an unbelievable guy, especially to all of the young guys. Derek Armstrong always kind of took me under his wing, because I always seemed to be on his line. He would always calm me down and be in my ear, helping out. Michal Handzus was unbelievable for me when I was there as well."

It's one of the time-honored traditions of the game. Most hockey players are willing and able to help groom and guide younger players, even when doing so might eventually result in the loss of their own job or roster spot.

When Moulson signed as a free agent with the New York Islanders in July of 2009, his career was very much at a crossroads. Weeks away from his 26th birthday when the 2009-10 season got underway, it was make or break time. There would be no shame if he didn't make the roster; ninth-rounders aren't drafted with the expectation that they're going to become NHL regulars. Once again, he benefited from the guidance of a true NHL pro.

"When I went to the Island, it was Doug Weight," says Moulson, continuing to list the veterans who helped mold him into the player he eventually became. "John Tavares and I lived in his guest house the first year, and having a guy like that to talk to and be around every day was unbelievable, and I still keep in touch with him to this day. It's hard to say everyone, but I think that's how the hockey community is. It's always willing to help. They see young kids having a tough time with something or having problems, and they're always willing to help out."

Playing on a line with Tavares - who was a rookie in the league that season - Moulson found his stride, and then some. He played all 82 games for each of his first three seasons with the Islanders, and he scored more than 30 goals in each campaign. He went from being a fringe NHLer to being a top six fixture and a star, leaving the Kings and the Penguins to scratch their heads and wonder what they had missed.

"It's funny," says Moulson of his sudden transformation, with the benefit of hindsight. "You look back on it, and it's hard to put your finger on one specific thing. A huge thing for me was that everything just kind of fell into place at the same time. I was dating my wife at the time and she was just a huge positive reinforcement when I went to that first camp.

"Obviously I was a little nervous; I had been up and down and I was in an important year in my life - I was 25 and turning 26 that year. I knew it was a big year for me, and in my mind it was a now or never kind of thing. She kept telling me, 'You're going to make the team, you're going to do great!' And I was like, 'Yeah, I think I will.'

"I spent that summer with a new trainer, Ben Prentiss, and he reshaped my diet and training that summer. And then I had known John Tavares since he was 11 or 12 years old. He played lacrosse with my brother, and I remember him telling me, 'We always had a great chemistry, so I know we will as well.' I had skated with him for 10 years previous to that, so I knew we would have some good chemistry out there, too.

"I obviously owe him a lot for the career that I had. I knew he was going to turn out to be the player he is now, and that was huge. Everything kind of fell into place. It's funny when you see a lot of great players who maybe didn't have as much success, there is a lot of luck involved in it. I was lucky to have everything fall into place at the same time."

Moulson scored 15 goals in the lockout-abbreviated 2012-13 season, but after the Isles got out of the gates slowly in '13-14, he was shipped to Buffalo in a deal for Thomas Vanek. In the last year of his contract at the time, the Sabres traded him again at the deadline, this time to Minnesota. In splitting that season between three teams, Moulson still posted 23 goals and 51 points in 75 games.

As a free agent in the summer of 2014, Moulson went right back to Buffalo, signing a five-year, $25 million deal. But the first season of that deal was also the beginning of Moulson's decline. A 36-goal scorer in 2011-12, Moulson managed just 35 goals in the first three seasons of his second go-round with the Sabres. Early in the fourth season of that deal, he was waived and ultimately loaned to AHL Ontario.

Moulson will be 36 in November, and he knows his days as an active player are winding down, as they do for everyone. Not everyone has a Cornell degree to fall back on, but Moulson isn't so sure he wants to fall back on his.

"I don't think I remember anything I did [in school]," he laughs, "but it was economics and business. I think I'm technically an economics major, but I was in the business school and did a lot of finance and stuff like that. I don't know if I'm going to be using those skill sets.

"I think down the road - I have a good mind for the game - it definitely wasn't my legs that carried me through my career. So I'd love to stay in the game. My dream has always been - for as long as I can remember - to maybe work in a management-type thing with a team. I think I have a good eye for players and the game, and that would be something that would be unbelievable, the chance to do that after playing. So we'll see what happens."

In the meantime, Moulson will be helping to lead and to mold Washington's young charges in Hershey for the upcoming season at least. One recent vintage Bears team benefited in the extreme from just six weeks worth of such veteran tutelage.

Back in 2015-16, Hershey got out to a sluggish start with a large freshman class of seven first-year pros, a group that includes current Caps Travis Boyd, Christian Djoos and Jakub Vrana. Midway through that season, Hershey signed longtime NHL center Scott Gomez to a pro tryout agreement after he was cut loose by St. Louis. Gomez was 36 then, and winding down a 16-year playing career in which he played over 1,000 games and piled up more than 750 points.

Gomez was a member of the Bears for only six weeks; the Ottawa Senators signed him at the NHL trade deadline and employed him for the final 13 games of his career that spring. In the 18 games he skated with Hershey - the only AHL games he ever played - Gomez racked up 24 points and the Bears went 13-1-2-2.

Hershey went on to win a tight Atlantic Division race, and it vanquished the older and more pedigreed Toronto Marlies team in a five-game Eastern Conference final series before bowing to the Lake Erie Monsters in the Calder Cup final. Although Gomez had been gone for three months by the time the Bears reached the Cup Final, his presence was still felt. Players talked about him reverently, acknowledging what his brief presence had meant to their team and careers.

"You know what's funny about that?," queries Carbery. "Years later, when I came into the day-to-day operation of Hershey as a coach, I heard stories about Scott Gomez and how he helped some young players in a lot of different situations whether it was around town or adapting to the pro game. You would still hear some stories about that. So there is a perfect example of the type of impact players like that can have on young pros. You saw it in the results they had back in 2016, but hopefully now I expect the same thing from a guy like Matt Moulson with the level of respect he commands. I know guys will be absorbing all sorts of stuff that he shows them and it will be a great fit."

Fast forward to today, and Gomez now stands behind the New York Islanders' bench as an assistant coach, alongside ex-Caps coach Barry Trotz. Gomez is beginning his third season in that role.

This stint with Hershey could also help serve as a springboard for Moulson's next career, the one that has little to do with that finance and economics stuff he began absorbing in Ithaca nearly two decades ago.

"Honestly, I think you have things in mind like anyone does," says Moulson of life after his playing career ends. "You think you have something in mind; you don't really know what you're going to love until you've tried it. Obviously, I haven't tried any that stuff yet. We'll see. It could be in any capacity. I think it would be something I would enjoy. I love being around the game, I love watching games, I love being around the young players and helping them out. I think I've had a good chance to do that the last bunch of years. It's something I really enjoy, so we'll see what happens."

Behind the Caps' bench here in Washington stands Todd Reirden, a guy who was drafted in the 12th round of the 1990 NHL Entry Draft. Reirden also worked long and hard to carve out a five-year NHL career for himself, and he also caught the bug to stay in the game when he was a 30-something veteran helping to guide young players for Todd McLellan's 2004-05 Houston Aeros.

"I've enjoyed my time that I've spent with Matt so far," says Reirden. "We did a lot of research on him organizationally, and he is as advertised. It is a really key component for the development of young players, is to have the right older guys down in Hershey.

"He is a guy that I have coached against a lot over the years, and when he was having his best success there with the Islanders and how he did it, I just loved the way he played and the way he was able to have success. It was blue collar, it was front of the net, it was great skill around that area. He wasn't the most gifted player and he had to work for everything he got.

"To me, that's almost a blueprint of guys who go into coaching. He is not a guy who got his goals by beating people one-on-one. He scored them the hard way, and that was paying the price at the front of the net. Not many people want to do that. There was a time when he was one of the best at that particular job, and it's not a real fun one.

"I have a lot of time for the person and the player, and I've gotten some indication that those are his thoughts of moving forward. I think that's something that he and I can continue to talk about, more so probably after we have moved out of this camp and I can share some valuable experiences that someone like Todd McLellan and myself had together, and send him down there with a strong understanding that he can make a big difference in some young players' lives and really set himself up for some success as a coach."

But first, there is the matter of that 2019-20 season and the elusive championship Moulson is seeking. And if the Bears don't win it all this season, don't bet against him coming back for more next season. One of the benefits of that Ivy League education is that Moulson is smart enough to know that playing hockey is the best job he is ever going to have. He's not going to give it up willingly.

"I think that's an understatement," he says. "People look at athletes and don't realize that sometimes it can be a job. It's a long season, no matter what sport you're in. It's a grind, but it's a fun grind. You come to the rink and enjoy every minute of it, no matter how hard it is, each day sometimes. Sometimes are harder than others; you're obviously not going to win every game, and sometimes after those losses it's tough. But you get to play hockey for a living. It's pretty fun, I think.

"My kids enjoy watching me play as well, and that's a big thing. So hopefully I will keep playing until I stop loving it, or can't do it. To me, it's obviously the best job I'll ever have, so I'm going to try to keep doing it."

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