BUFFALO – Having grown up in nearby Mississauga, Ont., about a 90-minute drive, Sabres winger Matt Moulson said he’s well-acquainted with his new city.
“I used to love coming to Bills games,” Moulson said Monday inside the First Niagara Center prior to scoring twice in his Buffalo debut, a 4-3 loss to former Sabres coach Lindy Ruff and the Dallas Stars. “So it’s a great city. Who knows, it could be for a long time. We’ll see what they have in store.”
Moulson had something special in store Monday, scoring twice, his seventh and eighth goals this season.
“I’m sure I’ll be around the net as usual,” Moulson said hours before the game. “I don’t venture too far from there.”
Sure enough, Moulson scored from the slot 3:26 into the game, one-timing Tyler Ennis’ pass over Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen. Moulson then backhanded a shot from in front as fell to the ice 17:17 into the second period.
Like former co-captain Thomas Vanek, the star winger the Sabres dealt to the New York Islanders late Sunday for Moulson and a 2014 first-round pick and 2015-second round selection, Moulson’s an unrestricted free agent.
Given the Sabres’ sorry state, the 29-year-old Vanek had no interest in re-signing with the rebuilding club.
Following his first practice with the Isles on Monday, the Austrian called the trade “a bit of a shock,” although he wasn’t surprised and he “knew it was going to happen sooner or later.”
“We traded pretty much every veteran,” Vanek told reporters. “The message was clear they were going for draft picks and youth.”
He added: “I enjoyed my time there, but I didn’t want to be a part of that (rebuilding).”
Meanwhile, Moulson, a three-time 30-goal scorer, could be dished again this this season. Still, the 29-year-old said it’s “exciting” to be part of the young group.
“I’m ready to go,” he said.
Ironically, Moulson is wearing Vanek’s old No. 26 and skated in his spot on the left wing beside center Cody Hodgson.
Moulson took a 4:30 a.m. ride to the airport and arrived in time to skate Monday morning. He was on the couch Sunday night when he learned of the trade, something he called “shocking.”
“I’ve never been traded, so everything’s kind of a whirlwind right now,” said Moulson, who’s wife stayed in New York with their baby boy.
Now that he’s gone, the Sabres will acknowledge that, yes, they knew the slick Vanek, their top scorer and arguably best player, was going be traded at some point during this trying season.
“It just was the timing of it was quicker than people would’ve thought,” Sabres coach Ron Rolston said. “Obviously, losing a player that has meant so much to the organization over the years is tough.”
Winger Steve Ott, now the Sabres’ regular captain, said the team had “been prepared for this.”
“There’s been no smokescreens or anything that’s gone on from the organization,” Ott said. “From the top down, I think everything’s been truthful from what’s going to kind of continue to go on here.”
Sabres defenseman Henrik Tallinder added: “We got a good player here. I think we lost one. It is for the future. I think that’s why we did it.”
But in Moulson, the Sabres have a huge asset for present.
“When you lose Thomas, it’s good to get somebody back that has that presence,” said Rolston, who said he watched a lot of video on Moulson and talked to his brother, Brian, his old teammate on Long Island.
Rolston said Moulson’s “really professional about what he does.”
“He’s in great shape,” he said. “He works hard. We want those type of players around our younger players.”
Sabres winger Drew Stafford, one of only three Sabres regulars left from the 2006-07 Presidents’ Trophy team – goalie Ryan Miller and Tallinder, who was just brought back, are the others – said it’s sad seeing Vanek leave.
“It’s just the way things are going now,” Stafford said. “At the same time, it’s a business. It’s the unfortunate side of things. You’re going to lose guys, lose some great friends, some great teammates. But at the same time, you have to find a way to move forward.”
Miller, who said he’d miss Vanek’s “evil little laugh,” added: “It’s hard to watch all of them go. It’s no different each time. All these guys have been close friends and great hockey players.”
The Sabres’ rebuild, Stafford said, is “definitely hard.”
“It’s a challenge,” he said. “It’s just the direction we’re going.”
Notes: Sabres winger Patrick Kaleta won’t appeal his 10-game suspension with a neutral arbitrator, according to reports. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman recently denied Kaleta’s appeal. He served his ninth game Monday and can return Saturday against Anaheim. … Rolston said defenseman Christian Ehrhoff will remain the lone assistant captain with Vanek gone. … The Sabres scratched defenseman Jamie McBain (healthy) and tough guy John Scott (suspension).