Matt Moulson knows nearly no one believes in him as a hockey player. In fact, the Buffalo Sabres forward counted his allies on one hand.
“I have my trainer, skating coach, my family and maybe a couple close friends that still truly believe in me,” he said. “I definitely have a chip on my shoulder coming in to prove a lot of people wrong that maybe lost a little belief.”
No player in Buffalo’s training camp has more to prove on the ice than Moulson. If it weren’t for the five-year, $25 million contract that has three years remaining, the 32-year-old might have played himself out of the NHL last season. He had a goalless drought of 44 games and found the net just once in 63. His ice time plummeted into the single digits for long stretches, and the three-time 30-goal scorer couldn’t get off the fourth line.
“This summer was about making sure I put in the work and believe in myself to get back to where I want to be,” Moulson said in HarborCenter. “I think I’ve done that, and obviously I have a lot to prove.”
Moulson, whose workouts were panned by General Manager Tim Murray last season, sat down with his trainer after finishing with just eight goals in 81 games. They analyzed what went wrong or right during the season, then they went to work. Moulson has focused on his skating three or four days a week since May, and his time in the gym has created a leaner look.
“I know this is a big camp, so it was a big summer for me,” he said. “I’m here to earn everything. I spent a lot of time with a trainer and a skating coach making sure my body is ready to go and be able to help this team. I think where I’m at physically right now is where I want to be.”
The winger has a lot of work ahead if he wants to return to a scoring line. He’s opened camp as the fourth-line right winger. Based on coach Dan Bylsma’s line combinations, Kyle Okposo, Sam Reinhart and Brian Gionta are ahead of Moulson on the right, and Tyler Ennis, Evander Kane and Marcus Foligno are above him on the left.
“I’ve spoken to Dan,” Moulson said. “He’s pretty blunt in what he says. He doesn’t mix words, so I know I have to earn everything, and that’s what I’m here to do.
“Competition’s good within a team and good for the team and the people pushing them. We have a lot of good players on this team. It’s going to be a tough camp. Skating with the guys before, everyone’s ready to go.”
Moulson’s life off the ice will surely be different this season. Jack Eichel has moved out after living with the Moulson family as a rookie, and Okposo has arrived in town. They are godparents to each other's kids, so one of the few remaining believers in Moulson’s game is again by his side.
“He’s an unbelievable player and also a great friend,” said Moulson, who played with Okposo for parts of five seasons with the New York Islanders. “Just having him there to have someone to be an extra person to talk to and ask their opinions and get their true, true feelings – he’s not going to sugarcoat it –that’s definitely good on a personal and team level.
“I’m making sure that I’m going to be in the best possible physical shape, mental shape to make sure I’m here to help this team.”
The Sabres have one more scrimmage scheduled, but the training camp champion has already been crowned. The Blue group, featuring Sam Reinhart, Evander Kane, Alexander Nylander and Zach Bogosian, improved to 2-0 on Saturday with a 2-1 victory over the White team.
Forward Cole Schneider and goaltender Anders Nilsson excelled for the winners. After recording a hat trick Friday, Schneider had a goal and assist Saturday. Nilsson didn’t allow a goal during his 30 minutes of action during the two games.
White and Gold, both 0-1, will complete the tournament at 9:50 a.m. Sunday in HarborCenter. The Sabres will also have practice sessions from 9-9:45 a.m., 10:40-11:25 a.m. and 12:50-2 p.m. Jack Eichel, back from the World Cup, could practice but may not take the ice with the team until Tuesday.
The first preseason game is Monday against Minnesota on the Penn State campus.
In an era of big goaltenders, John Muse stands out. When the 5-foot-11 netminder skates to the crease, he’s instantly recognizable compared to 6-5 Nilsson and the 6-4 triumvirate of Robin Lehner, Linus Ullmark and Jason Kasdorf.
Muse signed a minor-league contract with Rochester in July after splitting last season with Texas and Charlotte of the American Hockey League. The 28-year-old was a combined 18-9-4 with a .911 save percentage. He made a game-saving stop with his pad with three seconds left in the Blue team’s victory.
“You notice he’s an outlier not only the size of him in the net, especially our net compared to the others, but not just a conventional, standard, blocking, big goalie taking up the net,” Bylsma said. “You see a little bit of a kick save.”