UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- The summer of 2009 was a crucial one for Matt Moulson. Indeed, he had a lot on his plate.
Left Wing - NYI
GOALS: 11 | ASST: 21 | PTS: 32
SOG: 104 | +/-: -9
Not only was he set to become an unrestricted free agent after three seasons in the Los Angeles Kings organization (mostly spent in the American Hockey League), but he was ready to take the next step in his personal life.
He wanted to pop the question to his girlfriend, Alicia.
"I needed to make the NHL to buy the ring -- or she was going to get one of those vending-machine rings," Moulson told NHL.com.
Searching for help up front, the rebuilding New York Islanders -- who selected John Tavares with the first pick in the NHL Draft a week earlier -- came calling when the free-agent market opened July 1.
Friends since their childhood in Ontario, Moulson quickly phoned Tavares and informed him of the Islanders' interest.
"There were a couple of teams I talked to," Moulson said. "It worked out kind of perfectly. I knew Johnny really well. I remember on that free-agent day, I talked to him and said the Islanders were interested. He was like, 'You gotta sign, you gotta sign.' Obviously, I worked very hard that summer. I was hoping he'd help pull me along a little bit."
Moulson made the Islanders out of training camp, and 108 goals later, he's proven to be one of the better finds by any NHL team in recent memory.
Skating alongside Tavares, the durable left wing has three consecutive 30-goal seasons and enters Friday's matchup against the Pittsburgh Penguins (7 p.m. ET, NHLN-US, RDS2, ROOT, MSG PLUS) tied with Tavares for the team lead in scoring with 32 points (11 goals, 21 assists).
"He's one of those guys that's kind of always overcome obstacles and proven people wrong," Tavares told NHL.com. "I think he knew the situation and that this would be his best opportunity to really make it, and he took advantage. He's a hard-working guy who's got a great attitude."
Moulson certainly had to prove himself at the very beginning. After getting 23 points in 33 games as a freshman at Cornell University, he was the 263rd player (Round 9) selected at the 2003 NHL Draft, by the Penguins.
Unfortunately for both parties, the Penguins never signed him.
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"I was drafted by Greg Malone and [former general manager Craig] Patrick when he was there," Moulson said. "[The Penguins] kind of switched up management. I don't think I even talked to them. I don't know if they watched me much or whatever at school. Things didn't work out, I guess, from their end."
Eager to prove himself, Moulson signed with the Kings and impressed at their rookie camp in the summer of 2006. He spent his first pro season with the AHL's Manchester Monarchs and finished tied for the team lead in scoring with 57 points (25 goals, 32 assists).
"We had a great team that year," Moulson said. "We lost to Hershey in the semifinals. I met a lot of great people that helped me on my way."
Moulson began the 2007-08 season in the AHL but fulfilled a lifelong dream when he was called up by Los Angeles a couple of weeks into the campaign. In his first NHL game, against the San Jose Sharks, he scored against a current teammate.
"It was on [Evgeni] Nabokov, coming down the slot," Moulson said. "[It was] assisted by Derek Armstrong and Michal Handzus. I don't think I've ever had as big a smile as I did then."
Moulson would play 21 more games in the NHL that season, but he spent the majority of the time with Manchester. It was tough, but he was destined to work his way back to the sport's top level.
He made the Kings out of training camp the following fall and scored one goal in seven games before going back to Manchester, never to receive another shot in Los Angeles.
"I had a little bit of a slow start and got sent down pretty quickly," Moulson said. "They say you don't know how long your chance will be. You really have to take advantage of it. I don't know what it was. I think it was maybe a confidence thing at that point with me. That was probably one of the hardest things: making the team out of camp and thinking, 'All right, this is my shot,' and then getting sent down. I was never recalled, so it was tough."
Things quickly changed when Moulson arrived in New York. A long shot to make the team when training camp began, Moulson and Tavares developed a tremendous amount of chemistry almost instantly.
"I didn't think they had too many players like me and my style, kind of an in-front-of-the-net type guy," Moulson said. "I thought it'd be a good fit. It was a young team. I knew I'd have to work hard to make the team out of camp. No matter what kind of situation you're in, you have to work hard, but you need some lucky bounces and lucky breaks. I was very fortunate that training camp to get a bunch of them."
With Moulson's willingness to crash the net and Tavares' phenomenal vision and hands, one of the most dynamic tandems in the League was formed.
"I just think we read off each other really well," Tavares said. "I think just our friendship, we understand each other as people, and I think that makes a big difference. That can go a long way. We just have a lot of fun together. We both want to succeed and push each other for more.
"I couldn't be more thankful to have a guy like that. I need a guy like that to be successful. You can't do anything on your own. I know he doesn't always get so much credit, but he does so many good things."
Moulson said, "We think a lot alike, although he does some things I probably wouldn't think of. But I think we think the game similar. We read off each other well and we know each other extremely well, on and off the ice. We know everything about each other. When you know someone that well, you know what they're attempting to do out there and you know where you have to be to be successful and get open. We have that chemistry where we know what the other is trying to accomplish. He knows I'm a pretty simple guy out there, and I know he's creative. We work well off each other."
"It worked out kind of perfectly. I knew Johnny really well. I remember on that free-agent day, I talked to him and said the Islanders were interested. He was like, 'You gotta sign, you gotta sign.'" -- Matt Moulson on teammate John Tavares convincing him to come to the Islanders
Moulson and Tavares have spent the majority of this season skating alongside Brad Boyes, who signed as a free agent after PA Parenteau took a four-year deal from the Colorado Avalanche last summer. Boyes has 26 points in 30 games.
Though Moulson's mainly known for scoring goals, his production in the assist category has increased significantly. In 2011-12, he had 33 assists in 82 games. This season, he leads the Islanders with 21 assists in 30 games. But he insists it's simply a reward for continuing to go to the net -- and the opportunity to play with Tavares. Moulson has earned an assist on 13 of Tavares' 18 goals.
"Sometimes those things happen," Moulson said of the assists. "Sometimes the puck doesn't go in for you and you have to contribute in other ways. I've been lucky enough to pick up some assists off my legs and being in front. That's where I generate most of them; it's just being in front and battling for pucks and trying to get them to people. It's tough not to get assists when Johnny's putting everything he shoots in the net and Brad's scoring, so it's easy to get points."
Islanders coach Jack Capuano said, "[Matt's] one of those guys from the hash marks in, he's very dangerous. It's a matter of time I think before he breaks out and gets a few more goals for us as well."
The Islanders (13-14-3) have come close a couple of times this season to moving into a qualifying position for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, only to suffer setbacks. They suffered their second straight defeat on home ice Thursday, a 5-2 loss to the Montreal Canadiens.
Despite the back-to-back losses, New York enters Friday three points out of eighth place in the Eastern Conference. Should the Islanders find a way to play consistent hockey and earn a postseason berth, it will be an exciting experience for Moulson, who is eager to get a taste of playoff hockey after everything the franchise has gone through over the past five years.
When it comes to the Islanders' struggles, Moulson knows better than anyone. Since signing with the club in 2009, he's never missed a game. He'll make his 277th consecutive appearance for New York when the puck drops at Nassau Coliseum on Friday. He's eager and ready for happier times.
"We're right there … it's there for the taking," Moulson said. "We know how we can play. I think we've shown we can be a playoff team. We've beaten some of the better teams in the League and we have to make sure we bring that consistency. This is the best chance we've had since I've been here to make the playoffs, and we have to take advantage of that. I know a lot of guys in here are dying to play a playoff game."