Photo Credit: Dan Hamilton/USA TODAY SPORTS
I promise you, we had no plans on putting out two pieces with Matt Martin as the subject this weekend. But last night was another one of those “shit just went down games”, so here we are. If you haven’t read Ryan’s piece from Friday, it reminds you that Martin has just one point in 17 (now 18 games), and isn’t getting burned by puck luck; his on-ice SH% and PDO are both normal. His shot-attempt metrics aren’t saving him either; the team gives up fewer shots when he’s on the ice, but they take so many fewer that it becomes detrimental.
But those who believe in his style of player will tell you that this doesn’t matter because Martin brings an element that can’t be quantified in point production or puck possession. He hits, he blocks shots, he’s good in the room, he’s tough to play against, and he protects his teammates.
I’m not completely adverse to the “intangible” element. Qualities like the above are the icing on the cake of a well-rounded hockey player. But I’m not sure he’s delivering as advertised in that regard either.
Before we get into this, as far as the statistics that bring out his good side go, I’m still not convinced that he’s significantly above replacement level, if even equal to it. Back in October, I wrote a comparison between Martin and Toronto Marlies forward Rich Clune, who played 19 games with the Leafs last season. Clune is a little bit smaller, but is of a similar mould; aggressive on the forecheck, gets under your skin, well-liked by his teammates, has his player’s backs. He didn’t get an NHL contract this year and had a cap hit of $575,000 last year. Here’s how Martin’s stats looked compared to Clune’s heading into last night’s game.
I don’t know if the Leafs need a player in this mold, but at a quarter of the price, what we saw from Clune was a player who was getting more points, taking fewer penalties, shooting blocking more shots, and more or less keeping up with shots and hits given his lower ice time. From a fancy-stat perspective, Clune was just as “bad” at generating offence (read: decent at killing time), but better at preventing it, making him a net positive player. It’s not necessarily an advocacy to call Clune up or to say that Martin can’t play in the NHL, but it’s an example of maximizing your budget and commitment; why put four years into a player that you can find similar of within your system when you can go year-by-year at a lower cost and leave yourself options?
But back to protection. I decided to look at all five of Martin’s acts of punching this year (on paper, it’s three, but we’ll count the preseason bout and last night’s roughing exchange as the fourth because Martin should have taken five for removing his gloves).
This is a preseason fight, and perhaps one to get the blood flowing. The whole ordeal starts because Martin decides to cross check the 21-year-old McCarron on the numbers towards the boards. McCarron wasn’t happy and as the big, tough prospect he is, decided to defend himself. We can safely say that Martin is the initial aggressor in this sequence.
Martin took less than a period to drop the gloves with the Leafs for the first time, which if we’re being honest, is probably excusable. The preseason doesn’t really matter to most, and whether we believe the politics of tough guys make sense or not, it is his duty to “send a message” that he’s not messing around and is around to do tough guy things.
But again, this isn’t a situation where he stands up for his player. It starts because Martin runs Borowiecki into the boards, from behind, leading with his stick and his knee, which annoys Borowiecki and makes him feel the need to defend himself. Once again, Martin is the initial aggressor on this sequence.
Same deal with this game as the last one, in terms of Martin basically having to rise to the occasion. It’s the home opener, and he can’t let his hometown fans down in his first real game as a hero-type at the ACC. You have to give him credit too because Zdeno Chara is still just about the biggest, baddest, guy around. But what starts this fight?
Well, about thirty seconds before the two decide to drop the mitts, Martin hits Torey Krug during an attempted breakout. Which he’s supposed to do, and nobody faults him for. But he does jump into it a little, and Krug is one of the smaller and younger players on the Bruins defensive corps. Chara, as such, feels the need to stick up for his guy. Once again, Martin is the initial aggressor on this sequence.
Ah yes, this game again. We all know how the buildup of this goes. Morgan Rielly throws a borderline hit at Jannik Hansen, Nazem Kadri throws a worse one at Daniel Sedin, and a frustrated Hansen drops the gloves with Kadri. Things cool down, Martin keeps beaking at Derek Dorsett, but Dorsett doesn’t want to fight him. Rather than being too intimidated to do anything, Dorsett simply fights Leo Komarov instead and then yells at Martin after the fact. Alex Burrows spears Morgan Rielly, the two fight at centre ice, with each eager to get retribution. At that point, all is square up, right?
Mike Babcock, a few minutes later, sends Martin out, with a suggestion to make sure that “there’s no trouble”. Seconds later, Martin gets into a board battle with Canucks rookie Troy Stetcher, throws him to the ground, and starts wailing on him. A line brawl ensues. Ryan Miller, who is very much a goalie, is the first to jump in because he feels Stetcher is in danger. The situation prior to this was bad, but basically balanced out. The brawl brought things into overdrive.
Matt Martin’s dead. Everyone can hear that right now..f’n dead
— Jon Abbott (@HockeyAbbs) November 6, 2016
Not only is Martin the initial aggressor in the sequence that he was involved in, he wasn’t able to curb Dorsett from going after somebody else, and if that Gudbranson bit above is of any indication, we’re in for more violence in a few weeks. That’s not protection; that’s continuation.
Lastly, we have last night. Again, we have Martin eager to throw a hit. He comes in far too late and basically tackles Montreal youngster Nathan Beaulieu into the boards. Those who are fans of Martin will be quick to point out that he looked to make sure that the 23-year-old defenceman was okay, and use that as a way of absolving the aggression put into the hit.
But within seconds of doing that, Martin is throwing punches while the linesmen are trying to pull the two apart, so there’s that. Once again, Martin is the initial aggressor on the play and his opponent is the initial victim acting in self-defence.
I had this to say after it happened.
One of these days someone will go after a kid because Martin went after theirs and they can’t get the line match to attempt revenge on him.
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) November 20, 2016
It’s hard not to feel that way, given that all of these incidents so far this season have started not as Martin getting back at somebody going after a Leafs player, but with Martin hitting or throwing down a player that’s younger than him (Borowiecki only by two months, but still technically correct). Eight hockey minutes after this sequence, we had this:
Now, Alexei Emelin has a habit of doing dumb things, and James van Riemsdyk isn’t exactly a kid. In fact, there’s no doubt in my mind that this should lead to a suspension, though the lack of injury means that it probably won’t.
But the fact is that what Martin did earlier had no impact on stopping something like this from happening whatsoever; it’s not out of the realm of logic to think that the prior incident increased the game’s tension and, even if Emelin wasn’t straight up thinking retaliation, the tone was set for the game to get more aggressive, rather than less.
The player to get a hold of him, by the way? Rookie Connor Brown.
So What’s Going On?
Right now, we’re about a quarter way into the first of four seasons of Matt Martin’s tenure. The promises of a skilled fourth liner who could hit and protect not only haven’t been delivered, but have instead been met with career-low paces in just about every metric, and his acts of toughness have entirely been rooted in protecting himself after throwing borderline or dirty hits.
I don’t think Martin is, in the long term, likely to be as detrimental as he’s been so far. Even I can’t see him finishing the season with fewer than half of his career low in points, and at some point in these games, there will be a situation where it will be nice to have a player who can throw some hands around. I don’t know if there will be enough of those to make it worth it, or even if there aren’t players who could handle the situation well enough for it to matter, but I’m sure he’ll find his time.
Plus, quite frankly, I’d like for him to bounce back. By all accounts, Martin is genuinely a good person off of the ice and many Islanders fans will be quick to point out that he’s missed in Brooklyn for that very reason. That’s usually the case with role players, especially as the amount of spots available to them diminish; they don’t take their “living the dream” time for granted and try to make the most of it for themselves and others. Not to mention, in a situation where I’m watching a game strictly for entertaining, his style is fun to watch; which is why he and similar players are so endearing to the casual fan.
Besides, as I’ve stated many times before, it’s not his fault that he was offered a sweetheart deal to play for his childhood team, and that he keeps getting opportunities to prove himself.
But pro sports is a shrewd industry and in a salary cap world, every advantage you can get matters. At the present, the 27-year-old isn’t giving the Leafs an advantage. His presence so far can be replicated by a grocery list of league-minimum players, and given that there are three more years to go on this deal, they’re going to need more, or at least something different out of him soon. The Leafs are going to be a competitive team sooner than later, and they can’t be committing a roster spot and a non-negligible percentage of their cap space to a player who can likely already be replaced by almost every forward by the Marlies, dependant on how you’d like the fourth line to play.
For now, though, let’s start with him finding a way to only pull out the fists to defend others, not to answer to his own mistakes.