Wednesday, February 18, 2015

High-Scoring Stevie Moses Weighs NHL and KHL Options

Stevie Moses
KHL's Top Goal Scorer

In the article " Former UNH Star Stevie Moses Ties KHL Goal-Scoring Record", posted last week on The UNH Men's Hockey Blog, Stevie Moses described what it took to become the top goal scorer in the Kontinental Hockey League - the second best professional hockey league in the world after the National Hockey League. So far in his first season in the KHL, Moses has added 21 assists to his league-leading 35 goals. With 56 points in 56 games, Stevie Moses is currently tied for 6th in KHL scoring. This video provides a small sample of Moses' passing and shooting skills from a Jokerit victory earlier this season:

With four games remaining in the regular season, Moses is focused on boosting Jokerit's position in the standings ahead of the playoffs and breaking the KHL single-season record for most goals. When the season is over, Moses will be in the enviable position of choosing where to play next year. His contract with Jokerit expires this season and he will become a free agent in the KHL. He is also a free agent in the National Hockey League.

Just days after Moses finished his senior season at UNH, he signed an amateur tryout contract with the Connecticut Whale (now known as the Hartford Wolf Pack), the AHL affiliate of the New York Rangers. As an undrafted free agent, he scored 2 goals in the remaining 8 games in the Whale's regular season and 1 goal in 2 AHL playoff games. With a lockout looming in the 2011-12 NHL season, Moses decided to sign with Jokerit, then a member of Liiga, the top professional league in Finland. A number of established NHLers played for Liiga teams that season and Moses was the 4th-leading goal scorer in the league with 22 goals in 55 regular season games.

On January 30th, I had an opportunity to interview Stevie Moses via Facetime.** He had just completed a game against the KHL team from Bratislava, Slovakia in front of over 12,000 fans at the Hartwall Arena in Helsinki. Stevie had scored the 3rd goal in the Jokerit's 4-0 victory. It was his 33rd goal of the season - just two shy of the record.

Among the topics we discussed were the various signing options available to him at the end of this season. As you'll see, Stevie has been carefully weighing the pros and cons of signing with an NHL team or remaining in the KHL. What follows are some excerpts from the interview.

Mike Lowry:
"In retrospect, your decision to leave North America and pursue your professional career in Finland has been a smart move for a number of reason. As you pointed out in a December, 2012 interview with Hockey's Future, the NHL lockout in 2012 lead to very few openings on AHL squads. If you had stayed in the United States, you would likely have played in the lower-tier East Coast Hockey League. Ironically, by signing with Jokerit, you got to play against a number of NHL players who played in Europe during the lockout. Now, this year, Jokerit made the big leap into the Kontinental Hockey League which is widely regarded as the second best professional hockey league in the world. It goes without saying that folks who have followed your career are wondering if you will sign with an NHL team next season. Can you share your current thinking about that prospect?"

Stevie Moses:
"It’s a unique situation I’m in now. My agent has spoken with 12 to 15 teams in the NHL at this point. I will only go to the NHL on a one-way contract not a two-way contract like I was just coming out of college. For example, like Bob (Butler) or Paul (Thompson) or any of the UNH guys. When you sign a two-way contract coming out of college, there’s a certain amount of money you make for playing games in the NHL and a certain amount you make playing minors."

"I’m now 25, I’ll be 26 next season so I’m able to sign a one-way contract. Let’s say it’s worth 700,000 – I get $700,000 whether I’m in the minors or the NHL. My agent has told every team 'If you’re going to sign him or make any offers, then it’s going to be a one-way contract' – which is a nice situation to be in."

"It comes down to if I feel like an NHL team is going to give me a realistic chance to play in an offensive role and put me in a position to be successful, then I’ll take much less money coming back to North America than I could get from some of the big Russian clubs. They can pay pretty big salaries. With the season I’ve been able to have, I ought to be up for a good amount of money from a Russian team."

"It comes down to if I feel like I want to play in the NHL, I can find a team that will give me a real chance to play games in the NHL, on a top 2 line, on the power play and then I’ll make that decision. That will be something I’ll have to deal with probably over the next two months or so. I’ve been telling my agent that I’d like to finish this season and focus on Jokerit and what we’ve got going right now. When the season is over, we’re going to sit down and weigh both sides, whether it be staying and playing in Russia somewhere or trying to go back to the NHL. Obviously, it’s a really exciting time and I’ll have some big decisions over the next couple of months."

"Of course, people have asked me, especially in Finland, what my plans are. I’ve made it known throughout the season that my goal is to go back and play in the NHL. My agent has been very proactive and talking to NHL teams. I have no preference about where I would play in the NHL. It’s all about having the GM, coach and the management on board saying - 'Look, we have a guy coming in who took a different development path who needs to be given a realistic chance'. I would hate to sign somewhere in the NHL just for the sake of signing in the NHL and being able to say ‘I did it’ and then going and playing in the minors. I wouldn’t do that. At that point, I’d probably go back to Europe anyways."

Mike Lowry:
"So, the other very attractive option you have is to sign with one of the Russian teams for a lot more money?"

Stevie Moses:
"KHL teams are not paying Americans, Canadians, and Swedes like they pay the top Russian stars who get 4 or 5 million dollars a year. But something like 2 to 2 and a half million dollars would be very possible. This is a job where I can only play for 10-12 more years and you have to think about your life after and what you want to do after your playing career is over. As much as it’s about the dream of playing in the NHL, you want to be pretty comfortable financially when you’re done playing."

Mike Lowry:
"Do you ever pinch yourself and say - 'Holy crap, I’m playing for 100’s of thousands possibly millions of dollars. I never imagined this would happen'. - or did you always think you would be able to do it?"

Stevie Moses:
"I didn’t know. I never doubted myself, I think a lot of people did. My career in college was good, not great. In comparison to what other players have done coming out of UNH, maybe it wasn’t expected that I would have this much success. But I always knew I had the ability to play at a higher levels."

"It’s still something that I’m really grateful for and I don’t take anything for granted. It’s pretty special what I’ve been able to do and I’ve been very lucky. A lot of it comes down to luck and timing. Even if I had signed an NHL contract coming out of college, it’s so easy to get buried in the minors. Three or four years out of school and you only play games in the AHL and you’re hoping at that point that maybe you can sign a contract in Sweden or Finland and make a little bit more money."

"But, having gone to Finland when I did and playing in the KHL three years out of school and being global - obviously everything has worked out well for me and a lot of that had to do with timing."

Mike Lowry:
"Your senior year at UNH you were listed at 5'9" and 170 lbs. You are now at 5'9", 176 lbs. There are a number of NHL stars who have a stature similar to yours. Guys like Martin St. Louis (5'9", 180 lbs), Patrick Kane (5'11", 177 lbs) and Johnny Gaudreau (5'9", 150 lbs). At the start of this season, the average height and weight across all NHL players was 6'1" and 203 lbs. What kinds of skills and characteristics allow the relatively smaller players to succeed at the NHL level?"

Stevie Moses:
"Ya, actually I was just talking about this. I had a meeting just yesterday with an NHL GM who came to Finland to meet with me. We talked about this, that the average size in the league is big. Guys are big players and it’s tough to make it as a smaller guy. No management guy, GM or coach, wants to stick their necks out for somebody small because if it doesn’t work out, it’s pretty easy to say - ‘Why did you sign him, the guy’s too small and he was never going to make it anyway' ?"

"I look at the names of the smaller players you’ve mentioned – Marty St. Louis, Patrick Kane, and Johnny Gaudreau. There’s plenty of other smaller guys like Tyler Johnson who plays for Tampa Bay and Nathan Gerbe. Even as unbelievable as Gerbe was in college, he’s kind of like hanging on in the league hoping to get a job. He’s not a guy who knows he’s going to be in the league every year signing for big money so it’s really tough."

"When I look at these smaller players who have been successful in the NHL, all of them play differently and have their own unique skill set. The one thing they have in common is that all of them are incredibly competitive. That’s a huge part of their success because you have to be mentally stronger and hate losing more than anyone else on the ice. Every time you get into a battle you’re the underdog and you have to relish that role. The role of ‘people don’t expect you to be successful and I need to prove them wrong’."

"Even with a guy like Patrick Kane who was drafted first overall, still there were people who doubted him because of his size. Obviously, some of these guys have world-class skills - Kane is arguably the most skilled guy in the league. But all of those guys have smarts on the ice and are incredibly competitive. That’s what makes smaller guys successful at any level, especially the NHL where everything is so business oriented. If somebody sticks their neck out and signs you and it doesn’t work out, they are putting themselves at risk. Everybody is on edge when a lot of money is on the line and everybody is trying to win, especially the players. Any of the successful smaller guys you mentioned compete every night and they don’t make excuses like ‘It’s OK if I lose this battle because I’m smaller or weaker than the other guy’."

Mike Lowry:
"If at some point in the future you decide to return to the North America to play, what will you miss about living and playing in Europe?"

Stevie Moses:
"It’s been unique for me because I’ve just played in Helsinki with Jokerit for three years. I think what I’ll miss most is this organization from the fans to the management to the players. I’ve had some unbelievable teammates here and with some guys, I’ve become really good friends. The fans here are just amazing. I think we average 12,000 per game and we just sold out tonight. We sell out plenty of games."

"Hockey in Finland is the biggest sport by far. There’s no other sports team that comes close in terms of popularity. We’re in the biggest city and we’re the biggest team in the city so Jokerit is the biggest hockey club in Finland which is a huge hockey market. You have a celebrity status here where everybody recognizes you wherever you go. But Finns are also really quiet, respectful people so they never bother you for pictures or autographs at the grocery store, movie theater or other places. They’ll recognize you but know enough to let you live your life. You might see the same fan at a game waiting in line to get an autograph and they’ll be thrilled to get a picture, but they wait for the right time."

"I just can’t say enough about the fans here and they’ve really been awesome to me. I was lucky to have awesome fans at UNH and I left there to play here and the fans really took me in. That’s something that I’ll really miss if I leave Helsinki. Living in this city, as hard as it is being so far away from home, it’s an awesome city. The size is just right, similar size to Boston say 5 to 6 hundred thousand people. It’s become a second home for me and I’ll definitely miss the city and the Jokerit organization."

Stevie Moses and Jokerit have 4 games remaining in the KHL regular season. All of them are away games. Moses next opportunity to break the single-season goal-scoring record is today, Wednesday, in Moskow, against Atlant.

In the final installment of this series of articles, Stevie Moses reflects back on his four-year career at the University of New Hampshire.

** Special thanks to long-time UNH hockey fan Tina Thibodeau for helping to coordinate my interview with Stevie Moses.


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