If you’ve ever watched the NHL Draft, you’ve probably gotten a glimpse of what high-profile first-round picks like Griffin Reinhart, Ryan Strome or John Tavares went through on draft day. From walking up on stage, shaking hands with the Commissioner and team management, posing for pictures, doing media interviews, posing for photoshoots, signing autographs, more photos and so on, it’s an exciting blur.
But for the players selected after the first round, there’s not always as much fanfare. In fact, the draft experience usually differs entirely.
Islanders forward Matt Moulson had just finished his freshman year at Cornell University when he was selected in the ninth round (263rd overall) of the 2003 NHL Draft by Pittsburgh. Needless to say, Moulson wasn’t exactly the big storyline at the time.
“No one knew who I was,” Moulson said. “There is a group of guys that are great players and can step in right away and fill voids on teams, but then there are guys who are really late bloomers or don’t catch the eye of the scouts as much as some of the players who are exceptional. That was kind of me in the late rounds.”
While the Cornell alum has enjoyed some degree of success at every level he’s played (over one point-per-game in four years with the Big Red, followed by two 25-goal seasons in the AHL), it wasn’t until recently that he saw his hard work pay off in the NHL. In the last three seasons, Moulson has dressed in every game for the Islanders, tallying 30-plus goals in each campaign. The North York, ON native knows his road to the NHL was different than most first-round draft picks.
“You have to put in a lot of hard work to kind of make up for that,” Moulson said. “I think it’s no secret that guys drafted in the first round or second round might have a little more opportunity from the start than late-round guys.”
But that does not mean being selected high in the draft is an automatic ticket to success. The Islanders selected goaltender Kevin Poulin in the fifth round (126th overall) of the 2008 NHL Draft. While Poulin is still developing as a professional hockey player, spending most of the last two seasons with the AHL’s Bridgeport Sound Tigers, he has already played more NHL games (16) than all but one of the 13 goalies picked before him during his draft year.
I think after the first few rounds went by, it got into the eighth or ninth rounds, and I was like, ‘OK, I have other things to do today.' - Matt Moulson
“Even if you’re a first rounder and you don’t work hard, and you just take it easy, you’re not going to get the opportunity you need,” Poulin said. “I think I just worked hard on-ice and off-ice, and I just put all my attention toward getting here, and this is where I am right now.”
The 2008 Draft was in Ottawa, a short trip from Poulin’s home in Montreal, so the goaltending prospect made the trip to be in attendance. The fact that he was waiting to be picked for over four rounds was forgotten once he finally heard his name called from the stage.
“The fifth round was a little late,” Poulin said. “I was getting a little nervous, but when I heard my name – I could have spent two or three or four hours there. It didn’t mean anything after that. I was so happy. I shook hands, took some pictures. It was one of the greatest days of my life.”
Moulson, on the other hand, watched the 2003 Draft from his home. With 262 players picked in front of him, Moulson started to get antsy.
“I think after the first few rounds went by, it got into the eighth or ninth rounds, and I was like, ‘OK, I have other things to do today.’”
Ironically, Moulson had to go to practice…for another sport.
“I was actually at lacrosse practice when the draft was going on,” Moulson said. “I was a big lacrosse player at the time. I came home and got a call saying Pittsburgh drafted me in the ninth round. It was the first step toward that dream to play in the NHL. I was happy. I think my parents and family were ecstatic.”
Moulson never signed with the Penguins. He would later sign with the Los Angeles Kings and eventually make his debut there before moving to Long Island in 2009. Seven years after being drafted, the lacrosse player finally had a breakout season in the NHL in 2009-10, leading the Islanders with 30 goals, while adding 18 assists.
So with 211 players being selected in this weekend’s NHL Draft, fans should keep in mind that players all develop at a different rate. While some will be stars as early as next year, others may have to wait seven years or more. Poulin knows that it is just as important for the players themselves to keep that lesson in mind.
“Draft day is a great day, but it’s only one day,” Poulin said. “It doesn’t mean anything else. It doesn’t mean anything when you go on the ice, and you just have to give your best to have a shot in the NHL and prove yourself.”