Matt Martin is underrated, so don’t sign him

Photo Credit: Brad Penner / USA TODAY SPORTS

Contrary to popular belief, there are Unrestricted Free Agents on the market that aren’t named Steven Stamkos. One of those players is New York Islanders forward Matt Martin, who according to David Pagnotta of The Fourth Period and Arthur Staples of Newsday, has attracted interest from the Toronto Maple Leafs, among other teams.

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Martin, of course, earned his fame from the tire pumping of one Donald S. Cherry, who had this to say about him and his linemates Cal Clutterbuck and Casey Cizikas:

“This here is the fourth line with their team; the toughest line in hockey. Let me tell you about Clutterbuck, Martin, and Cizikas. This line, Martin and Clutterbuck have led the le league for seven years, on and off, either one, in hits, if you can believe it. This may be the best fourth line ever in hockey, as far as I’m concerned.”

Of course, hits are one of those statistics that make the hockey analytics community wince. Beyond the fact that hits and other real-time statistics are subjectively tracked and often laced with arena bias, basic critical thinking and sports philosophy will lead you to the conclusion that a player who throws a lot of hits is a player who is always chasing the puck.

Certainly, the ability to throw a body check is something you want every player to have, but you also don’t want them to use it that often. As Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said of the St. Louis Blues during the Western Conference Finals, “I hope [Ken Hitchcock] tries to get to 70 [hits]. That means we’ll have the puck all game.”

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For that reason, Martin has been written off as a player that no hockey team should want. But I feel that the overreaction to Cherry’s Grapisms has led to a bit of an undervaluing of Martin in the hockeysphere.

What’s surprising, however, is that Martin isn’t the fancy stat mess that you’d think he’d be. While his 17 even strength points and 1.23 5v5 Points Per 60 this year leaves a lot to be desired offensively, that fourth line is surprisingly effective at shutting things down. Clutterbuck, Martin, and Cizikas rank 1-2-3 in Corsi-Against per 60 on the Islanders this year, despite seeing the most neutral and defensive zone starts. Martin’s time away from the line sees his CF% dip, but not as much as Clutterbuck’s and Cizikas’ fall without him.

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There might be an argument to be made that Martin could be a minor exception to the rule, and that he might be a reasonable defensive forward who can ride shotgun on an offensive line as their primary forechecker to help establish the zone, and establish pressure when the puck is going the other way. Pulling him away from that line is a risk, but it might be worth it to a team at the $1-2 million range.

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…but not at the range he’s going to command. After all, while Martin might be undervalued by some of the stats types, the Don Cherry method is still given heavy consideration by many NHL teams.

When you give salary and term to fourth liners, you end up with Bryan Bickells and Davi Clarksons. Fan favourites (usually; sorry Dave), but cap burdens. While the Leafs are certainly capable of proving my benefit of the doubt incorrect, their recent track record indicates that these are the types of contracts they’ll stay away from. If a high energy hitter is what they feel the team needs, they’ll probably settle for calling up Brendan Leipsic at a fifth of the cap hit.

Most likely, I bet the Leafs kicked tires on him initially but made their interest more passive as other teams began to get more invested in it. They’ll likely show face in the process until Friday, though, seeing as Matt Martin’s agent is Don Meehan of Newport Sports Management. Meehan, of course, is Steven Stamkos’ agent. Take that as you will.

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