WASHINGTON — As players took part in the famously grueling skate test on the first day of Washington Capitals training camp, Matt Moulson could be seen really digging into the ice, giving a full effort as he tried to keep up with the NHLers he used to fit in so well with.
After his on-ice session, he emerged from the locker room wearing a smile, standing by the bench after his session at Medstar Capitals Iceplex, his eyes reminiscent and reflective of a wild career — but focused, of course, on the positives.
“You know, there’s a lot of ups and downs in pro sports,” the 35-year-old told Sporting News.
Heading to the AHL’s Hershey Bears on a one-year deal, Moulson looked back at those ups and downs — the ones he’d become all too familiar with over the years.
The “ups” date back to high school, where Moulson hit his growth spurt around the age of 14. Not only was he a talented hockey player, but he was a promising lacrosse player as well, excelling in both sports while finding a middle ground between the two.
“I had some tough years in hockey when I was younger … lacrosse is kind of a sport I always fell back on. You know, if I had a tough time in hockey, I could do well in lacrosse,” Moulson explained, adding, “I didn’t realize it at the time, but I think it kind of helped me with in-front-of-the-net situations when you’re being pressured, you got to make plays in tight areas.”
His play led him to Cornell, where he played four years with the Big Red. He was eventually drafted by teams in both the NHL and the National Lacrosse League, actually going earlier in the NLL draft (37th overall) than he did in the NHL (263rd overall to Pittsburgh). He stayed at Cornell, though, dropping lacrosse after his freshman year to focus on hockey. He led the team in scoring three times and ultimately ended up signing as a free agent with the Los Angeles Kings in 2006.
His career took off, though, when he joined the New York Islanders in 2009. He posted three consecutive 30-goal seasons in his first three years with the team and became one of the top names in the Eastern Conference. Equipped with an accurate and lethal shot, good hands, excellent hockey IQ and a strong work ethic, Moulson was as good as they get, the kind of player that posted nearly one point-per-game as a reliable, consistent forward.
He was the kind of player teams needed in order to win.
“He’s the guy who’s been the league for a long time, someone who’s done it for a long time,” Capitals center Travis Boyd said of Moulson. “Just like anyone else. You kind of learn to respect those guys quickly — he’s put together a career that I’d be happy to have.”
Starting in October 2013, things got shaky; Moulson was traded to the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for Thomas Vanek, where he registered 11 goals and 29 points in 44 games before again being traded to the Minnesota Wild just months later at the deadline. He had 13 points in 20 games with the Wild before ultimately returning to the Sabres in 2014, signing a five-year, $25 million deal.
That’s when things started to go downhill for the 6-foot-1, 203-pound winger.
After posting 13 goals and 41 points in 77 games in 2014-15, Moulson saw a dip in his play as Dan Bylsma took over as the Sabres’ bench boss ahead of the 2015-16 campaign, registering a career-worst eight goals and 21 points. He appeared to bounce back the following year with 32 points despite being a rumored buyout candidate. After going 14 games without a point in 2017-18, the relationship between Buffalo and Moulson became tense, and he was placed on waivers for the purpose of assignment. Buffalo wouldn’t give him a roster spot with their AHL-affiliate Rochester Americans, ultimately loaning him to the Ontario Reign.
“It was obviously some tough years for whatever reason,” Moulson said. “You know, doesn’t matter how old you are. You still need that confidence to do well, and I think going to play in Ontario was very fortunate.”
The other Ontario of course — Ontario, California. When Moulson was shipped out to the West Coast, he wasn’t at a high point in his career, having been traded, waived and in the throes of “the darkest time” in his career. That all changed quickly with the Reign.
He thrived during his two-year tenure, posting 18 goals and 46 points in 49 games in 2017-18 before becoming an alternate captain last season and registering 62 points in 68 games.
Not only did his on-ice play improve, but his passion for hockey — one that had been missing back in Buffalo — was back.
“The L.A. organization gave me that chance and under Mike Stothers, it kind of rekindled my love for the game and the confidence,” Moulson said. “It was a great two years and I still love the game.”
Building a strong relationship with Stothers, Moulson was also able to find his game in the minors. He quickly found his step again and also formed great chemistry with his linemates, while also leading by example and being a positive veteran presence in the locker room.
“He helped me a lot in the past two years in Ontario … obviously, he’s a great player. He had a great career and he makes things a lot easier for his linemates,” Philippe Maillet, his former linemate said, adding, “He’s 35 and he still works hard every day. That’s something that I watch him do and try to mimic a little bit. He’s had a great career and there’s a reason why. He works hard every day, so there’s no reason why I can’t go out there and just do my hundred percent every day.”
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As he continues his journey — and AHL success — he’s still missing one thing on the road to redemption: a championship.
Through his career, he has yet to capture a title, from the NCAA to the Stanley Cup, and even meeting him for the first time, it’s easy to see that his will to win is unshakable.
But with the Bears, where his family’s nearby and he’s back in the Eastern Conference, Moulson is confident that a Calder Cup is well within reach.
“I definitely want one of those in Hershey,” Moulson said. “I think that was a big reason why I ended up signing there was just the chance to go win.”