Matt Moulson was never given the opportunity to play in the Ontario Hockey League, let alone become one of its stars at age 15.
The closest he ever got to the world junior championship was watching it on television. And when his name was passed over 262 times during his second year of eligibility in the NHL draft, it’s safe to say the odds of him of ever playing in the league were pretty long.
Yet, here he is now, leading the upstart New York Islanders in goals with 10 – one ahead of teenager John Tavares, the No. 1 draft pick who took a direct route to the NHL.
By comparison, Moulson’s path was full of twists and turns. But he never gave up hope that he’d play in the league one day.
“I think some of it’s just ignorance,” Moulson said Wednesday from Long Island, N.Y. “I didn’t even realize the hurdles, so to speak, or the obstacles. I just kind of kept my head down. My dad always told me to keep working and I’d make it – I think maybe I believed it too much. …
“My dad jokes sometimes that if he knew back then what we know now about the hockey world, he probably would have told me to pack it up and concentrate on academics and business.”
That certainly would have been the safer option.
Moulson was still getting cut by teams as a teenager and eventually found his way to Cornell University after playing Junior B hockey in Guelph, Ont.
Now 26, he is finally getting his first full-time opportunity to play in the NHL. Moulson appeared in 29 games with the Los Angeles Kings over the past two seasons, but wasn’t able to secure a regular spot in the lineup.
He’s managed to do that with the Islanders because he’s been producing, putting up 10 goals and 18 points over 21 games.
“I don’t think I could ask for much more,” said Moulson. “The situation I’m in and where I’ve been placed on the team, how I fit in. I didn’t really know what to expect. I just wanted to make this team.
“Deep inside, I knew I could contribute if I got the chance to.”
A big factor in his decision to sign with the Islanders over the summer was the belief he’d be given a decent opportunity to earn a roster spot. Moulson agreed to a two-way deal – and could easily be sent to the AHL – but had the chance to speak with Tavares and coach Scott Gordon before signing his contract.
It was a tense time.
“Before free agency, I was pretty much a nervous wreck,” said Moulson. “I didn’t know what was going to go. My fate was in my agent Wade Arnott’s hands. I’d call him up about 10 times a day asking, ‘Wade, where do you think I’ll end up?’ “
There were plenty of moments in recent years where Moulson had the opportunity to wonder where he might be heading.
One of the toughest times came last season, when he initially made the Kings out of training camp before getting sent to the AHL after just seven games. Soon after, he suffered an injury and never made it back to Los Angeles.
The one constant that has always carried him through is self-confidence.
“I may have had some times when I was pretty low, but I still always had that belief that I’d be able to be successful in the NHL,” said Moulson.
His success has come at the same time the Islanders have found some success of their own. Last year’s 30th-place finishers are a surprising 8-6-7 so far and have been consistently improving after a slow start.
Moulson credits a positive atmosphere around the team.
“There’s not really one thing you can point at,” he said. “A lot of guys are playing well and it seems like we’re learning on the go here. We’re gaining experience, every one of us.”
A big experience awaits in the coming days.
Moulson grew up just outside Toronto and will get his first opportunity to play an NHL game in the city when the Islanders visit Air Canada Centre on Monday.
It will be a good time for him to reflect on how far he’s come.
“I’ve been dreaming about playing in Maple Leaf Gardens – the ACC will have to do,” Moulson said with a laugh. “I’ve dreamt about playing in Maple Leaf Gardens since I was probably five years old. This is going to be a big moment.”