Isles find unlikely gem in Moulson
While you assuredly are aware of the Suck for Luck campaign being conducted with Swiss-watch efficiency every weekend by the feckless Indianapolis Colts, you might be less familiar with the Fail for Nail plan that could be in vogue in coming months in the NHL.
Nail is Nail Yakupov, a prolific-scoring winger for the Sarnia Sting who is averaging two points per game in his second season in the Ontario Hockey League. Yakupov had 49 goals in his first season, as a 17-year-old. The nifty Russian almost surely will be the first player selected next June in the entry draft, although Fail for Nail offers no money-back guarantee.
The NHL does not reward incompetence as generously as the NFL. The odds of the 30th place team securing the first draft choice are about 50-50 in the NHL lottery system, which was born after the Ottawa Senators organization was suspected of doing a little Six Men Out thing late in the 1992-93 season to achieve, if that's the right word, the worst record and reap the reward -- if that's the right word for winger Alexandre Daigle. (Just as a note of interest, defenseman Chris Pronger went second, to the Hartford Whalers.)
The Senators did not exactly trod new ground here -- former Pittsburgh general manager Eddie Johnston called up goalie Vincent Tremblay from the minors in 1984 after starter Roberto Romano had the chutzpah to jeopardize a shot at a junior stud named Mario Lemieux by playing well -- but they did usher in a new era that at least tries to make teams behave.
This is the most curious aspect of the North American fan experience. Given draft systems that reward the weak or incompetent, fans often debate the merits of, and sometimes actually cheer for, their teams tanking in order to improve draft standing. The exercise of rooting against your team is at once depressing and uplifting, an act of near religious faith. The fan often believes that being bad rather than good is the surest path to salvation, whether it takes the form of a Stanford quarterback or a junior goal-scoring sensation or some ankle-breaking point guard with one year of college ball. You also must have the faith that the same bunch of bumbling executives that put your team in the toilet in the first place are wise enough to identify the savior and that he, like the Penguins' Lemieux, lives up to his billing.
Operating under the dubious premise that the future can't possibly be more miserable than the present -- Toronto Raptors and Columbus Blue Jackets fans, are you really that sure? -- there is an abiding trust in rebuilding, especially rebuilding around high-end draft picks. In hockey, sometimes it even works.
You don't necessarily have to be the Red Wings, who scout superbly, draft well, develop patiently and remain an elite team without benefit of high picks. Sometimes you turn things around by being awful. Pittsburgh drafted Evgeni Malkin second overall in 2004, lucked into Sidney Crosby in the 30-team post-lockout lottery and followed up with another center, No. 2 pick Jordan Staal, in 2006. So there you have a Stanley Cup winner, backstopped by goalie Marc-André Fleury, the first selection of the 2003 draft.
The horrid Chicago Blackhawks picked Jonathan Toews third overall in 2006 and Patrick Kane No. 1 in 2007 and the rest was history, or at least the end of a history that had seen the Blackhawks fail to win the Cup since the first year of the Kennedy administration.
The Quebec Nordiques/Colorado Avalanche turned bad teams into good drafts that, with a trade for Patrick Roy, led to a championship. And the Senators eventually drafted high enough for long enough that they became a perennial Cup challenger until unraveling in 2008. Edmonton currently is going down this road with Oil Change, which might actually work if No. 1 pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins continues to sparkle.
All of which brings us to the New York Islanders, the team that hope forgot.
The Islanders have made the playoffs four times since 1994. They have missed the playoffs four straight years and five of the past six. New York had the first overall pick in 2000 when GM Mike Milbury took goalie Rick DiPietro and in 2009 when GM Garth Snow drafted John Tavares. There have not been low-hanging draft fruit every year -- other than Tavares, the Islanders have selected no higher than fifth post-lockout (Nino Niederreiter in 2010 and Ryan Strome last June), but they have had two other picks in the first 10 -- Kyle Okposo (seventh in 2006) and Josh Bailey (ninth in 2008).
Maybe the Islanders, who began the week 14th in the Eastern Conference, are moving in the right direction. But in comparison to, say, Minnesota or Florida, it seems like turning around the fortunes of this franchise is more difficult than making a K-turn with a battleship.
"Sometimes (winning) is a slower process," Islanders left winger Matt Moulson says. "Some teams find it quicker. In our case, it's been slow but steady, a matter of really finding the right people that fit together."
Moulson is a reminder that a team does not have to be egregious in order to find players.
Of course, Moulson might have been harder to find than most. As a boy growing up in the sprawling Toronto suburb of Mississauga, virtually every team in the Greater Toronto Hockey League cut him. As a teenager, hardly a squad in the 416 or 905 area codes didn't tell him to take a hike.
When he was 16, Moulson had to drop down a letter, to the AA level, which is not exactly the fast track to having your own hockey card. Ontario Junior A teams like Vaughan and North York cut him. He wound up playing Junior B in Guelph. He tried out for a couple of teams in the USHL in the hope that a stint in the American junior league ultimately would lead to a scholarship at a Division I university, but he was cut.
He then went out to British Columbia after the failed USHL tryouts and was cut by the Vernon Vipers of the B.C. Hockey League.
Says Tavares, his center, "You'd need all your fingers and probably your toes to count all the teams who've cut him."
Moulson skulked back to Guelph, but a strong start to the season led to an offer at Cornell where he played four years for the Big Red (2002-2006). Pittsburgh had drafted him 263rd in 2003, but he wound up in the Los Angeles system after college, playing for the Manchester Monarchs of the AHL and in 29 NHL games with the Kings over two seasons, albeit with distinctly modest success (six goals, 10 points). In an astute move that ranks with claiming Michael Grabner on waivers before the start of last season, Snow signed the wandering winger to a two-way contract in July 2009.
The conspicuous reward: Moulson has had a pair of 30-goal seasons and is promising another. Through 28 games, he had scored 15, including four in one game earlier this month in Dallas, which is terrific, of course, except that he probably should have had six. He missed an empty net and failed to convert a breakaway.
"A lot of kids can look up to him and see how he persevered," Tavares says. "He's not going to do anything you'll see in the highlights, but he works extremely hard and has a great attitude."
On the ice, Moulson is not exactly a picture post card of the Eiffel Tower. And if you laid the distance of all his Islanders goals end to end, to borrow from Dorothy Parker, they probably wouldn't stretch from the Nassau Coliseum to the Marriott across the parking lot. His other linemate, winger P.A. Parenteau, recently started calling him "Tebow" -- and not because Moulson would ever think of dropping to a knee to celebrate a goal. Not much of a skater and hardly a sniper (although the shot is better than advertised), Moulson just seems to maneuver himself into positions where he can get things done.
"Matt is," Islanders defenseman Steve Staios says simply, "a hockey player."
"I've always seemed to find a way (to score), whether it's the puck going in off me or banging in rebounds," says Moulson, who has benefitted from Tavares assists on 12 of his 15 goals. "Getting open for Johnny or P.A., I pride myself on getting the job done. A lot of that is making sure I'm in the right place."
Snow's second best move could have been signing Moulson to a three-year extension in January. The contract, worth $3.13 million annually, is reasonable given Moulson's level of productivity. The Islanders obviously could not easily replace those 30 goals on the open market. At the moment, Long Island is not exactly a beacon for free agents. But the Island always was Moulson's destination of choice. Moulson's wife, Alicia, has family in nearby Greenwich, Conn., he has a strong working rapport with the splendid Tavares, and he enjoys the environment if not necessarily the team's antiquated rink.
"When you're faced with a situation like (the offer of a contract extension) in the middle of the season and we're not in a playoff spot and I can be a free agent after the season's done ... well, my wife and I talked a lot about it," Moulson says. "I wanted to stay here badly. I love the guys in the organization. There was a two-week time there when we were doing the contract that was pretty stressful. Lot of sleepless nights. If the two sides couldn't agree, the team might have been forced to make a move in their better interests.
"There are a lot of good character people in this organization, on and off the ice. The potential for the team to do well is something I obviously looked at. When you think you can be a really good team, with character people you like to be around every day, it's a pretty easy decision."
And maybe the Islanders are just -- sigh -- one or two high draft picks away.