EDMONTON – It has taken Edmonton Oilers captain Ethan Moreau just 16 games this season to equal his point totals of the previous two seasons combined.
That speaks not only to how well the 33-year-old left-winger is playing to start his 13th NHL season, but to the scope of the struggles Moreau has overcome to get to this point.
After missing a staggering 132 games during the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons with injuries including a dislocated shoulder, a fractured foot and a broken leg, Moreau’s off to the best offensive start of his career with five goals and 10 points.
He’s as healthy – and productive – as he’s ever been.
“I missed the game and I missed the competitiveness,” Moreau said of the string of bad breaks that kept him out. “But I never had a doubt, even at my lowest time, I could come back and be a good player.
“I kind of laughed at the notion I wouldn’t be the same player or I might not even be able to come back. I always knew this day would come and I’d play well.”
Moreau’s calling card has never been offence. The six-foot-two, 220-pound forward from Huntsville, Ont., was named team captain after Jason Smith was traded to Philadelphia in 2007 because he’s a hard-nosed grinder who does the dirty work, kills penalties and stands up for teammates.
But there he was Thursday against the Toronto Maple Leafs, playing left wing alongside sophomore Sam Gagner and right-winger Ales Hemsky on coach Craig MacTavish’s first line.
“Those of us who’ve been around Ethan awhile know the type of person he is and how much he loves the game,” said Shawn Horcoff. “He missed a lot of that the past two years.
“For him to come back now and have this success, it’s just a huge lift for everyone. We laugh about it, too, because he’s says he’s going to play two more years because he’s missed the last two.”
Moreau’s had his best offensive season in 2003-04, when he scored a career-high 20 goals and added 12 assists in 81 games. He goes into Saturday’s game against the Colorado Avalanche with modest career totals of 127 goals and 116 assists in 726 career games.
“I’ve always thought I could produce more, given the opportunity,” Moreau said. “The better players I play with, the more I’ll score. It’s just like with anybody.
“I enjoy the role I’ve had as a defensive guy, a physical guy, but I always felt there was an element to my game that could be better if I was given the chance.”
Last season, his first as captain, Moreau was limited to 25 games. He missed the first 38 games after having his left foot fractured by a shot in a pre-season game in Calgary. He missed the final 19 games with a fractured left tibia. In between, he had nine points (5-4).
In 2006-07, Moreau played just seven games after dislocating his right shoulder against the Detroit Red Wings. He had just one point to show for that campaign.
“It’s nice having Ethan helping out on the first line,” MacTavish said. “But we need to replace Ethan on the third line now.
“We need somebody to step up and assume more of a physical presence, and we haven’t had that. Ethan’s played great. He’s fit in. It’s worked very well. That line was very good (Thursday) night.”
For a competitor like Moreau, sitting out while the Oilers missed the playoffs two straight years was the most difficult part. That he’d return with a fire burning in his belly surprises no one.
“I feel great. I’m healthy. I’m enjoying the game and having a good time,” Moreau said. “I’ve felt this good skating-wise before, but the rest of my game feels better.
“I had a lot of time to work on skill stuff. I just wanted to focus on making sure that when I came back I’d be a complete player and a better player. I mean, I had a lot of time to prepare.”
Obviously, the numbers Moreau has put up weren’t expected. While it’s not a pace he’s likely to maintain, he’s too busy relishing an opportunity to put the past two seasons behind him to worry about that.
“I went through, in my world, kind of hell and back,” he said. “That’s why I’m looking forward to the next few years.
“There’s no reason you can’t improve. I’m 33 and I think I’m getting better. My best years are still ahead of me.”