Matt Moulson. photo: USA Today

MATT MOULSON’S FALL INTO THE ABYSS By Andrew Kulyk and Peter Farrell

Sabres winger exiled to AHL


In this day and age of guaranteed contracts in the NHL, obscene amounts of money paid out to even the least talented and productive players on a team, and the culture of entitlement in sports locker rooms, what can be done with a player who just doesn’t produce anymore?

You can’t just cut them, you can’t throw them out. You can try to make a trade, but what other general manager in their right mind would take your baggage, especially a player commanding a boxcar seven-figure salary?

Such was the case with former Sabre Ville Leino, who in 2013-2014 slogged through the entire season without scoring a single goal, before mercifully ending his career and returning to Finland. He collected a hefty $4-million salary that season.

Which brings us to Matt Moulson.

Moulson came to Buffalo via a blockbuster trade with the New York Islanders for Thomas Vanek, back in the 2013-2014 season. He was a 30 goal scorer for the Islanders for three consecutive seasons, during a time that their team was struggling to be relevant. Isles GM Garth Snow knew that keeping Moulson would require a huge dollar commitment and a multi-year contract which might not have been a good fit, so off to Buffalo went Moulson. He later left via trade to Minnesota as a rental, but then resigned and returned to Buffalo, where he has been a Sabre for 3 seasons.

His 5 year, $25-million contract doesn’t expire until the end of the 2018-2019 season.

Through 14 games this season, Moulson has been pointless. He bounced back and forth between the fourth line and the press box, all while collecting his $5-million salary, the fourth highest player on the team.

The team has been a disaster, to the point where General Manager Jason Botterill put out the call to all his peers in the league, stating that everyone on the team, with the exception of Jack Eichel, was for sale and he was open to offers.

Then he put Matt Moulson on waivers.

What that in essence means is that any team can claim the player (and his salary) at no cost, and if no team takes that player, he is then free to report to their minor league affiliate, in this case being the Rochester Americans.

But in the next move, which one can only call a bitch slap, Botterill made a bold move, to send a tremor through the Sabres dressing room. Instead of assigning Moulson to the Amerks, he worked out a deal with the Los Angeles Kings to “loan” Moulson to their minor league affiliate, the Ontario Reign, just outside of Los Angeles. Because of the American Hockey League’s scheduling system this season where teams only play opponents within their conference, the Amerks will not face the Reign during the regular season, saving the organization the embarrassment of paying a player $5-million to be in a lineup against your prospects.

Botterill was deferential to Moulson but minced no words as to his decision. “Matt has been a true professional, especially during this difficult decision,” said Botterill. “From an organizational standpoint, we felt that with our young forwards in place in Rochester, we did not want to take away from their development and ice time by adding another veteran player at this time.”

For the Sabres, the shock of losing Moulson, and having him exiled to the west coast, coupled with the announcement that every player on the team is vulnerable to an unknown destiny, seems to have sent a message.

Going into last week’s road trip, the Sabres had managed to lose three straight games by shutout, a dubious record which was unprecedented in the franchise’s history. Watching the almost painfully unwatchable spectacle unfold on the ice by a dispirited and undisciplined team it was clear that something had to be done.

But what? Fire yet another coach? Shake up the scouting department? Hire another social media specialist to pump out clever tweets?

The Sabres came out roaring last week at Colorado, putting together perhaps their best 60-minute effort of the season. They followed by losing two heartbreakers – in Chicago and St. Louis. But both games went to overtime and one could see that exhaustion took over at the end of both those games, with a renewed passion spilling out onto the ice. Goaltender Robin Lehner was magnificent throughout the road series, and for probably the first time this season since opening night, watching Sabres games became fun again.

Will it last? The shock waves continue to emanate from within the team.

Almost disconsolate was Jack Eichel, who spent his rookie season with the Sabres living in Moulson’s house, and he choked out a few words prior to the team taking off for the road trip. “I owe a lot to him. He’s been there for me since the day I was drafted. His wife and his kids have been like family to me.”

Meanwhile, Moulson has finally broken into the scoresheet this season. In three games with the Ontario Reign, he has notched three assists, including an assist on the overtime game-winner at San Antonio this past Sunday.

For those three assists, and for any remaining goals and assists Moulson may score this season, Sabres owner Terry Pegula will be forwarding bi-weekly checks to the tune of an annualized $5-million this season to the payroll office at the Ontario Reign. And next season.

Moulson’s exile into the abyss should generate only crocodile tears. In his three-plus seasons with the Sabres, most through the “tank” years, he netted 35 goals. That, folks, comes out to $714,286 per tally. Not a bad payday for the Moulson, ya think?