Photo Credit: Anthony Gruppuso/USA TODAY SPORTS
A weird off-season for the analytically minded Toronto Maple Leafs culminated in the signings of Matt Martin and Roman Polak. To the smart-set, Toronto overpaid for size, which is the cardinal sin in analytics. Everyone else thinks these deals are great, like everything their team does, but I’m not sure that either side is completely correct. While I don’t love either contract, I think they bought fit, not size.
Leaving Polak for another post, conventional wisdom on Martin says “solid player, bad deal”. He’s strong defensively, second in the NHL since 2014 in relative CA/60 Relative, and first in tied situations. Some say Martin plays weak competition, but against Sidney Crosby, his most common opponent since 2014, he put up a 54.2% CF%. Sid in that time put up 50.41 CF/60 against Martin, and 63.40 otherwise. It’s a small sample, but reading the list, there’s no pattern around the results, and thirty minutes against Sid isn’t nothing. Suppressing nine shot attempts per 60 minutes matters, even coming against weaker competition. He also put up stronger Corsi Against numbers than similarly used teammates.
The fit over PA Parenteau is evident. If James van Riemsdyk and Leo Komarov play with Nazem Kadri again, there’s no left wing after van Riemsdyk, who’s been an NHL regular before. The right side is similar, but that’s probably where William Nylander and Match Marner play. Parenteau scores, but would play less. Competition on the left side exists, with Nikita Soshnikov, Josh Leivo, Kerby Rychel, and Brendan Leipsic, but only Leivo must be waived. Playing more creates more value.
Back to balance. It’s hard proving that Martin’s defence balances offensive teammates. On three man units, you need to know who’s driving offense or defence, who the third forward is, and who they all otherwise play with. It’s more complicated for the Islanders, since John Tavares is much better than his teammates, and has played more with ten linemates than his 85 minutes with Martin. For the bit it’s worth, the only forward to put up a better CF% with Tavares than Martin in over fifteen minutes is Mikhail Grabovski, a strong defensive player making twice Martin’s salary.
Where I’ve referred to “defensive conscience,” you may say “disruptor.” Martin’s speed and size make his hits more likely to break up a play, leaving his linemates, who under Babcock would be positioned in relation to the puck rather than the ice or their teammates, in a position to pick up loose pucks. Or at worst, ending a rush, killing time, and keeping opponents from the play.
When a teammate has the puck, players tend to spread apart, to draw defenders, and because passes go faster than players. Babcock takes advantage of this when his disruptor loosens pucks, leaving his players closer and better positioned around the puck to cut off angles to the opposition. A harder hitter, who can remove a player from the play, may be more likely to prevent the carrier from regaining the puck. Given that, Martin should excel at stopping opposition puck carriers and providing teammates an opportunity to chase a loose puck. This is the role that Komarov and Rich Clune filled on their lines last year. Given the specialization involved, traditional positioning will matter less than the ability to cover more ice. Martin’s speed will help.
The contract isn’t ideal because they didn’t exploit a market inefficiency, which is the goal here. I think there are cheaper disruptors available, and Martin will rely on players with complimentary skill sets to thrive. The Leafs have many puck carriers, though, and Martin provides a better chance at a loose puck. It shouldn’t shock anyone if teammates were better at carrying in those pucks than fellow disruptor linemates Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck are better at taking advantage. The Islanders would have been better off using this to create loose pucks for their carriers, instead of playing to kill time in the neutral zone against weak opposition.