By Jeff Capellini, CBSNewYork/WFAN.com
NEW YORK (WFAN) — John Tavares is heading to the NHL All-Star game, and rightfully so. He’s every bit playing the part of a franchise player.
But what about Matt Moulson? You can make a serious case that as far as value goes, both to his team and on the dollar, that this guy is just as deserving of a spot in Ottawa over the last weekend of January.
That said, I can understand why Moulson didn’t get the nod. The Islanders are currently 14th in the 15-team Eastern Conference, 10 points out of a playoff spot and just an enigma to try to figure out on a nightly basis. So it wouldn’t be right to give them two All-Stars when teams with better records only get one or two at the most.
But Moulson is having a career season, averaging nearly a point per game. The 28-year-old left wing has 21 goals, nine behind league leader Steve Stamkos, but just three behind second-place Phil Kessel. And considering how Tavares played throughout the first half of the season there’s no reason to think Moulson won’t continue to be the main beneficiary.
The last Islander to crack 40 goals was Jason Blake in 2006-07. Moulson is currently on pace for 40.
That would be quite a feat all things considered. The Islanders, as we all know, are basically a one-line operation on offense, though things have improved somewhat since coach Jack Capuano flipped P.A. Parenteau for the then-struggling, but now-flourishing Kyle Okposo.
Moulson has been asked to do quite a bit and he’s responded in a manner befitting an All-Star selection, even if he ends up watching the festivities from home. He may be one of the best bargains in the NHL. General Manager Garth Snow signed the unknown Moulson to a one-year deal prior to the 2009-10 season and all he’s done since is score 82 goals and register 141 points in a little more than 200 games.
And he’s now locked up on the Island through the end of 2014 at slightly more than $3 million per season.
What’s admirable about Moulson, in addition to his uncanny knack for knowing where to be on the ice at all times and his great chemistry with Tavares, is the fact that he’s emerged as a leader on a team sorely in need of just that. He’s become a spokesman of sorts and has kept an upbeat attitude despite his team being nothing but inconsistent this season on the heels of four consecutive non-playoff seasons.
Moulson has become one of the better snipers in the NHL, but his most telling statistic is his plus-9 rating on a team with a minus-31 goal differential. In fact, of all the Islanders who have played at least 14 games this season, Moulson is the only player in the black in that category. The next closest is Tavares at even.
And unlike teammate Michael Grabner who has mostly struggled to adjust to the NHL’s adjustment to him, Moulson continues to be highly productive even though opponents know the sheer numbers the Isles can throw their way on any given night are limited. Moulson has 10 multi-point games, including a four-goal effort against Dallas on Dec. 3 that earned him the NHL’s First Star of the Week.
Moulson’s aforementioned chemistry with Tavares is off the charts. I’m not sure if they are completing each other’s sentences yet in interviews, but they certainly don’t need a GPS to find each other on the ice.
I went to the Isles’ 4-1 win over Edmonton at the Coliseum on Dec. 30 and saw what may have been the prettiest goal of the season. Just the way these two know where the other is by instinct instead of vision is a sight to see. On Saturday night during the 4-2 win over Buffalo at the Coliseum, you saw the brilliance of Tavares when he found Moulson in the slot off a rebound to open the scoring. During Monday’s loss to Nashville, Moulson returned the favor, setting up Tavares for the Isles’ only goal. These are just a few examples of two players being on the same page in a manner that’s conducive to exactly what any team would want from its first-line stars.
It’s just too bad the Islanders don’t have more combinations like this to trot out there.
But, Moulson’s impact is not just coming at even strength. Heading into Monday, the Islanders’ power play was at 19.3 percent, seventh in the NHL, and showing a consistency it hasn’t shown in ages. Special teams had to improve if this team was to make a run at a playoff spot. And while we don’t know if the Isles will this season, we do know that if they draw penalties they will be dangerous.
For his part, Moulson leads the Isles with seven power-play goals, two more than Tavares and just three off the league lead, and has added six assists.
Every great player has his sidekick, the guy who made him better or got better because of the bond. It’s clear that Moulson and Tavares side by side will remain the Islanders’ identity for years. Tavares is without question a superstar in the making. With a strong second half he could challenge 85-90 points, a feat no Islander has accomplished since Ziggy Palffy was their premier player, just prior to the franchise’s fall into the NHL’s lost-but-still-not-found bin. Moulson has become the co-face of the franchise’s new look. And while the results have yet to approach the promise, the Islanders are in many ways climbing that ladder toward respectability and beyond.
What they lack is consistency and depth offensively, and more reliable defensive-minded blueliners, but they are getting there.
And Moulson, despite his somewhat advancing age on a team that features a core barely old enough to buy a beer, is very much an integral part of precisely what the Islanders are taking baby steps toward accomplishing. He is entering his prime and, really, the sky is the limit on what he will end up being. If you couple his innate hockey sense and skills with Tavares’ sheer ability, and throw in a player like Okposo, who may now be ready to take on the comparisons to Jarome Iginla, you could end up with one of the NHL’s best lines.
It’s in many ways a scary thought, just how good this group could be.
The Isles have to find a way to reproduce this somewhat on their other lines. Maybe the new pairing of Grabner, Frans Nielsen and Parenteau will bear some fruit. Maybe the arrival of phenom Ryan Strome next season will be the answer. Either way, there’s no looking back at this point. The front office has made it clear it is riding this thing out.
I know this team can be painful and frustrating to watch, but it really is getting there, albeit at a glacial pace.
And Moulson, who we must remember was plucked from relative obscurity, is as much a driving force in this team’s development as any ballyhooed first-round draft pick you could care to mention.
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