On June 22, 2003, Matt Moulson hit the lottery. The Penguins chose the forward in that year's NHL draft. It was a great feeling, a dream he'd worked hard for years to realize. There was a small problem -- 262 players had been selected before him and another 28 names would be picked after. Being drafted by an NHL team was an honor, but being taken so late hardly came with the promise of a roster spot.
"I was a little disappointed," Moulson says. "I knew I had a lot of work to do from there. In the three years that they held my rights, I don't think I spoke to Pittsburgh once."
He spent those three years playing at Cornell University. Without any interest from the team that drafted him, Moulson needed to find the right fit. Like many of the nearly 300 players drafted annually into the NHL -- this year's event is Friday and Saturday in Pittsburgh -- Moulson faced long odds if he was going to play in the show.
After Moulson finished school, the Kings gambled and signed him in September 2006. Moulson showed promise during his time with the organization and even scored a goal in his first NHL game, but played mostly in the AHL. After three years and just 29 NHL appearances (10 points), the Kings didn't re-sign him for the 2009-10 season.
"I wish I could have proven to them that I was they player they wanted, but sometimes you need a change of scenery," Moulson says.
Moulson signed with the Islanders in July 2009 and was immediately paired with John Tavares, that year's first overall draft choice. Moulson scored his first hat trick before New Year's and finished the season with 30 goals and 48 points. They've yet to sail the Islanders into the postseason, but the duo have created a powerful tandem. Moulsen wound up a 2012 Lady Byng award finalist.
"(Tavares) has grown into one of the best players in the world," Moulson says. "He had a tremendous season and that’s obviously going to lead to better stats for everyone down the line."
Last season, Moulson played in all 82 games, scored 30-plus goals and led the Islanders in goals for the third consecutive season. Moulson career highs in goals (36), assists (33) and points (69). Tavares earned assists on 24 of Moulson's goals last season and has been on-ice for 60 consecutive goals scored by Moulson, earning 40 assists dating back to Nov. 17, 2010 against Tampa. He didn’t win the Lady Byng award this year, but Moulson has proven himself to be a true wildcard among late-round NHL draft picks.
"We're seeing a lot of late bloomers that take longer to figure their whole game out," Moulson says. "A lot of late picks are drafted because of their potential."
In fact, several other later picks in 2003 (and many other years) have made a considerable impact on the league. Sleepers from the 2003 draft include Stanley Cup champion Dustin Byfuglien (245), Jennings Trophy co-winner Jaroslav Halak (271) and U.S. Olympian Joe Pavelski (205, pictured below). Others made the NHL briefly. Still, all of those players were initially sent to the minors, where the odds are daunting and a career can go in many directions.
"It's a big jump to go from junior hockey to men's hockey and for some players drafted later there is less pressure," says Peter Wallen, the agent of last year's second overall pick, Gabriel Landeskog. "Each player develops differently and more important than where you go is if you go to the right team."
A more typical example of the career of a late-rounder is that of New York City Police officer, Jason Sessa.
A Long Island native, Sessa grew up cheering for the same Islanders that Moulson now plays for. He had visions of skating as a pro in the their home rink -- the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
By his draft year, he'd grown into a promising forward playing for Lake Superior State University. Sessa earned a silver medal with Team USA at the 1997 World Junior Championships in Geneva, Switzerland.
On draft day in 1996, Sessa was in St. Louis with his family and their attorney. The Rangers had a late third-round pick and the Islanders had an early fourth-round choice that Sessa hoped either team might use on a local kid. The Rangers chose Russian forward Dmitry Subbotin (76th), the Islanders chose goaltender Tyrone Garner (83rd) and Sessa went to the Toronto Maple Leafs with the 86th overall pick in the fourth round.
"Once the Isles and Rangers passed on me, I told my parents I as going to Toronto," Sessa remembers. "They'd contacted me a lot."
He returned to college for two more years and turned pro after junior year. At first, Sessa played in the Maple Leafs system and attended the team's training camp with Curtis Joseph, Mats Sundin and Tie Domi. But after three years, Sessa felt lost in their organization and Toronto did not re-sign him.
"I think from maybe the fourth round on there is a buffer and they give you time to develop and if it doesn't work, it’s not a big disappointment,” says Sessa. “It’s a numbers game sometimes."
Over the next seven years, Sessa played mostly at the "AA" level in places like North Charleston, S.C., and Elmira, N.Y. He endured 25-hour bus rides from Mississippi to Colorado, often played four games in six days and hid painful injuries for fear of being released. The job had its perks, though, Sessa won the ECHL's Kelly Cup with the South Carolina Stingrays in 2001 and was also an ECHL and UHL All-Star in his time. Sessa never made it to the NHL, but he did get to realize a dream.
"I got called up to the Islanders AHL team, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, and they play one game at Nassau Coliseum every year," Sessa says. "I got to play in the one at the Coliseum because it was during my call-up."
Sessa worked in construction in the off-season to help pay the bills. He took the NYPD exam around 2003, but deferred the academy several times to continue playing. Early in the 2007-08 season, Sessa hung up his skates and joined the force at 31.
When he's not fighting crime from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m., Sessa skates for the NYPD ice hockey team. Each year, New York's police and fire departments play a charity game at the Nassau Coliseum.
Although being selected toward the top of the NHL draft is the most direct way into the league, it isn't the only way. Many players who aren't drafted at all find an alternate path to the NHL. Past and present stars like Curtis Joseph, Ed Belfour and Martin St. Louis are among those to shine in the NHL without being drafted into it.
Former Philadelphia Flyer Tim Kerr thought he'd be taken in the 1979 NHL draft, in which the entry age was lowered from 19 to 18. He wasn't.
Kerr hooked on with the Flyers and eventually played in a total of 655 NHL games, scoring 370 goals and appearing in three-time All-Star games (1984, 85, 86). He set the single-season record for power-play goals in a season with 34 in 1985–86 season and won the Masterton Trophy in 1989. Players like Kerr somehow fall out of the draft but don't drift too far from the scout's radar.
"I was disappointed because I thought I'd be picked, but it didn't deter me from wanting to get there,” Kerr remembers. "I guess I was just overlooked.”
These days, Kerr helps free agent prospects advance their careers as the owner of the Pensacola Ice Flyers, a Single A club in the Southern Professional Hockey League. While SPHL players usually don’t move on to the NHL, their careers are rich in experience.
"It's very hard to tell what kind of a player someone will be based off their junior career," says Kerr. "You tell the kids to keep having that dream and to keep working hard."
For Kerr, advancing to the NHL was about making the best of the hand he was dealt.