Islanders forward and former Penguins prospect Matt Moulson scored 30 goals last season.
By Dave Molinari Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A few things have become pretty obvious while the first five-plus weeks of the 2010-11 season were melting away.
Steven Stamkos tying Sidney Crosby for the NHL goal-scoring lead last season wasn't a fluke.
St. Louis hasn't gotten the word that it still is supposed to be a year or so away from contending for anything of real consequence.
And the Penguins, to the shock of no one who has been paying attention for the past couple of winters, could use a top-six winger who can score goals. Maybe two of them. Possibly more.
A guy who is a proven game-changer would be ideal, but the cold realities of the NHL's salary cap put that out of the question. (Unless, of course, general manager Ray Shero decides to abruptly abandon that whole strong-down-the-middle philosophy that has been the cornerstone of his approach to team-building.) They probably would have to settle for someone moderately priced who can reasonably be expected to score 25 or 30 over 82 games. Someone like, say, left winger Matt Moulson of the New York Islanders.
Of course, it could be that the only way the Penguins could get someone like that would be to draft him. Which, coincidentally enough, is precisely what they did in the ninth round in 2003.
Trouble is, Shero replaced Craig Patrick as GM in 2006, right around the time Moulson was ready to turn pro after completing four years at Cornell, and Shero had no firsthand knowledge about him.
What he did have was an Aug. 15 deadline for deciding whether Moulson had a place in the franchise's future and, after getting input from scouts who had been on the staff under Patrick, concluded the prudent thing was to let Moulson walk after he balked at accepting their initial contract offer.
"I think that what we went on were the reports from the Pittsburgh scouts who drafted him and watched him," Shero said. "I think we might have offered him a contract, and he elected to wait until Aug. 15 to see if he could get something better."
At the time, scouts were concerned about Moulson's skating and, in the years that followed, he still hasn't inspired many comparisons to Pavel Bure. He does, however, possess a nice touch and enough hockey sense to score 30 times last season, and to put up six goals in his first 16 games this fall. That's a decent, if not spectacular, return on the $2.45 million the New York Islanders are paying him.
"He's not fleet of foot, but he has really good instincts and good hands," Shero said. "If we had signed him and he scored 30 for us, I'd say, 'Heck, our scouts did a great job.' But our scouts didn't recommend signing him."
Moulson, 27, subsequently accepted a contract with Los Angeles and, after honing his game with the Kings' American Hockey League affiliate for most of the next few years, moved to Long Island and has assumed a significant role there.
The Penguins, it should be noted, have done a pretty fair job of adding talent that had been overlooked by the rest of the league. Mark Letestu and Ben Lovejoy, for example, were not drafted before the Penguins signed them as free agents.
The unusual thing about Moulson is that he became a productive pro after scouts had four seasons to watch him play in college, and concluded he was a non-prospect. It's far more common for players who compete in major-junior hockey, where they must get a contract within two years or go back into the draft, to blossom after the team that drafts them decides to relinquish their rights.
For example, defenseman Jake Muzzin, the Penguins' fifth-round draft choice in 2007, was cut loose in 2009 after a couple of forgettable seasons with Sault Ste. Marie in the Ontario Hockey League.
"He really didn't show much during the two years we had him," Shero said. "He had the back injury, so maybe it took him some time. When he went back as an overage [in 2009], that's when he started to develop and blossom."
The Penguins had been sufficiently intrigued by Muzzin's size and offensive skills to draft him despite a serious back injury that had put his pro prospects in serious doubt. But those two lackluster winters with the Greyhounds convinced them he didn't have a place in their future.
"He had the back injury, so maybe it took him some time," Shero said. "That's part and parcel with drafting a junior kid, versus drafting a college kid.
"He'd be a junior or senior in college now, and we'd have more time to make a decision. You have to fish or cut bait [with junior players after two years]."
A few months after the Penguins cut bait with Muzzin, 21, Los Angeles reeled him in, and he played in nine of the Kings' first 14 games this season. It's far too early to know whether he'll develop into an impact player, but Muzzin seems poised to have a respectable pro career, at the very least.
Same with Moulson. Just like the Penguins had hoped both of them would when they plucked them out of hockey's teenaged talent pool back in their draft years.