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Matt Moulson Placed on Waivers: A Reflection

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Expecting it to end this way doesn’t make it any easier to watch unfold.

Buffalo Sabres v New York Islanders
So many thoughts here.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

This is in no way news affecting the current Islanders team, but it is something that affects many of us as fans and nostalgic people who like to remember when:

Matt Moulson, a three-time 30-goal scorer and one of the few bright spots during some dark seasons for the Islanders, has been placed on waivers by the Buffalo Sabres. He has zero points in 14 games, bouncing between the fourth line and the pressbox in a role that is the exact opposite of what he held in his younger years with the Isles.

Moulson is on a pricey contract the Islanders wouldn’t give him, making him all the more difficult for the last-place Sabres to move anywhere but to the AHL.

Garth Snow’s tenure as Islanders GM has been characterized by contrasts: Like most of the league’s GMs (if we’re honest), there are strokes of astute maneuvering mixed with head-scratching decisions and over-reaches, big bets on risky propositions mixed with cheap bets that pay off handsomely.

Moulson’s career with the Islanders, from the summer he was picked up as a cheap free agent-turned-annual 30-goal scorer to the moment they declined to offer him a huge contract and instead swapped him for Thomas Vanek, fully represents all of those contrasts.

What a Ride

A “that round doesn’t even exist anymore!” draft pick of the Penguins in 2003, Moulson showed both promise and elicited persistent doubt in his journey to an NHL opportunity.

During his first training camp with the Isles, he probably wouldn’t have made the team but for some timely preseason goals. (Any stretch of hockey includes randomness and luck. It’s kind of crazy to think that a player’s future -- and path to a $5 million salary vs. a continuation of AHL life — turns on some randomness in a few preseason games.)

When Moulson made the team and soon proved a productive partner to young franchise star John Tavares — despite repeat cries from some corners that Tavares was carrying him — he became a success story.

Remember that Tavares as a sophomore was not the Tavares-in-peak we know today. At some point, even the most cynical must recognize when a player is a Real NHL Winger(TM). Moulson’s 30 goals his first season were followed by 34 and 36 the following seasons — including robotically consistent 22 even strength goals in each of those seasons. He wasn’t flashy, but he was good.

That production justified the quite reasonable three-year, $9.4 million contract extension the Islanders inked Moulson to.

It also carried him to his eventual exit.

The Intersection of Cold Budgeting and Lofty Dreaming

Because the next time Moulson was due for a contract renewal, the Islanders sold high. They wouldn’t offer the kind of numbers that production often commands; they likely figured they’d already seen his best days.

The current news out of Buffalo seems to confirm that bet once and for all. Never mind that in place of that bet, they gave Moulson and more to the Sabres in return for Thomas Vanek, who thankfully declined the Islanders’ offers of a long-term deal that could have handicapped them.

(It’s ironic, really. Vanek was flashier than Moulson, and Peak Vanek was better than Peak Moulson. But the 200-foot-game knocks on Moulson at the time apply to Vanek too.)

The Islanders under Snow have acquired several value gems like Moulson and P.A. Parenteau and the early remarkably team-friendly extensions for Frans Nielsen and Kyle Okposo and the prescient belief in Mark Streit. They’ve let each of those go as their age and highest earning years became uncomfortable to the budget.

Yet at the same time, they offered loads to Vanek and made Andrew Ladd their top free agent signing (and reportedly offered even more to Nielsen than he took from the Red Wings). They let popular heart-and-soul fourth-liner Matt Martin walk with astute if cold financial appraisal, yet paid a premium for the two best members of their fourth line.

None of which is to say any of these decisions are as easy as us armchair critics sometimes make it sound. Free agency always and “team loyalty” often require premiums. Decisions to cut loose or stand on your budgetary ground are tough to make when you cannot guarantee what replacement will arrive — itself a reason that free agents then command “overpayment” in the cruel annual player movement cycle.

Except for the few elite teams that can attract a premium player for undermarket value, free agency is essentially a time when fans watch in horror as their teams can’t land the really good guys for cheap, leading them to fish for the just-pretty-good guys for way too much.

Parenteau bounced from team to team (and back to the Isles, for a preseason) and is now out of the league. Moulson has zero goals and is on waivers. Okposo has three goals in 25 games after recovering from yet another poor-luck injury. Nielsen is still productive but showing real signs of the decline that always assured his final contract would be a mix of utility and nostalgia.

Meanwhile, Ladd is healthy and effective again while aiding the development of the most important Islanders prospect since John Tavares. (Of course, it’s never Year Two of the seven-year deal that you worry about.) The Isles are currently in a better position than at virtually any point during the Snow era. (Thank you, Mathew Barzal.)

Some players help you move to that Next Step as a franchise even though you know, as it’s happening, they can’t be part of that Next Next Step. Because of age and timing, Moulson was like that, but it was a circumstantial route there. If he hadn’t played so well when no one believed in him, he wouldn’t have earned the contract that today makes no one willing to take him.

If his contract was cheaper or shorter, he’d at least be on that circuit of useful secondary scorers who pick up a new deal late each summer. That might still happen with growth in next year’s salary cap or if the Sabres buy him out.

Even though this felt, if not inevitable then certainly in the very possible solution set, it’s still a bummer to see. Tons of fans loved him — for good reason, as his teammates in Buffalo attest.

So the “business” side of hockey made this a reality. But I’ll remember Moulson for the Isles moments Dan highlighted upon his parting:

He found the back of the net again and again and again and again. His game wasn't elegant or electrifying. Yes, he played on a line with hometown friend John Tavares. But those pucks don't get behind goalies by themselves. Someone had to whack them in while falling down, with ogres hanging on their back or by silently sneaking behind everyone and shooting before anyone knew what happened. That last one was my favorite move.

To think, he almost never made the team.