As it stands, Matt Martin isn’t protecting anybody but himself

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).

October 6th

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. 

October 12th

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.

October 15th

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.

November 5th

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.

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.

November 19th

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.

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.

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    • Don

      I’m not sure that it’s actually blaming him for the losing, but more about he’s not doing the role he was brought in to play. As the season moves on, you will see Martin come to the aid of his team mates and play the protector. But the article does have some merit in that Martin often will go out of his way to make a hit, which at times leaves him open for a late/bad hit and also takes him out of the play as the puck moves the other way. And yes, a lot of the time he is in a fight because of his hits, or because he tries to agitate. That is fine, but so far – apparently he’s not protecting anyone

      He is a good guy, great team mate and definitely missed by Islanders fans – but in my opinion, a replaceable guy for 1/2 the price. I think that’s the main point of the article. What is he doing so far to justify his contract?

      • LukeDaDrifter

        Martin will never be in a position to protect anyone except himself and maybe the linemates who are on the ice with him. The “there to protect the young guys” scenario is something commenters mistakenly assumed. Unless Babcock moves him up to play with the young guys then his role will always be to skate fast, forecheck and lead the league in solid hits. The fighting just sometimes comes with the territory. All of the new guys the Leafs have added to the lineup have each contributed in their own way. The team is vastly improved from last year.

        I am not sure why so far this year, surprisingly, the Islanders are tied with Arizona at the bottom of the league, with only 14 points. I doubt losing Martin would be the main cause. Still there must be some effect.

        • Don

          When with the Isles, he played the same role you mentioned. However, because they were an effective 4th line they were often put out against 1st and 2nd lines. Hey may not have protected anyone on his team directly, but was able to send messages when needed via a “you hit ours, we will hit yours” approach. As for whether MM is the reason the Isles have languished this year? I don’t think so. It could be a combination of him, Nielsen and Okposo leaving. A lot of fans believe there is a lack of chemistry with the team, which most of us may have underestimated when they made the changes. In my opinion, the team seems to be sleepwalking. They are taking bad, lazy penalties, stick checking too much and the forwards are not back checking at all. If that is the result of those 3 guys leaving then I worry about the team and the roster they have. They need to suck it up and get back to playing to the talent they have. Their friends are no longer on the team. Too bad. This is a business. They need to get over it. IF in fact, that is why they have looked as bad as they have.

  • Haze

    Not that I disagree with your over arching point, I completely agree, but how on earth was martin the initial aggressor on the chara fight? Also, to suggest that Martin’s actions lead to emelins hit is as ridiculous as suggesting he’s a frequent deterrent.

  • kdeeth

    Martin had a great shift in the first last night. He goes hard into the boards, wins a puck battle and dishes the puck to the slot. That was the end of good play. He always finishes his checks no matter the positioning.

    This team doesn’t need leadership. These “kids” don’t need protecting. They need someone who will play the minutes between their shifts. I disagree with the Chara note, that game had all the Leafs pushing the Bruins around physically.

    If you can watch Martin and think, maybe they’ll score with him on, I’d be curious how?

  • LukeDaDrifter

    To imply to save money, Martin could be replaced by Clune is erroneous. Martin is a way faster skater. The very first game Clune played for the Leafs last year he took a major and game misconduct penalty for boarding and was on his merry way back to the Marlies.

    Martin has had three fighting majors so far this year. This is hardly earth shattering. He has received zero instigator penalties, One boarding penalty. One misconduct penalty. No game misconduct penalties. No suspensions. These are not the stats of a goon or a dumb player in general.

    In the game against the Canucks, it was after, three Canuck players jumped three Leaf players (throw in a spear to Rielly that should have been a major and game misconduct that was missed by both referees) before Martin ended up fighting Stetcher near the end of the game. The narrative for the game has become, what a nasty player Martin is. In fact on that play Martin easily beat Stetcher to the puck in the corner. Stetcher then comes in behind and checks Martin on the numbers right into the boards. Now the check wasn’t devastating but still it was a check from behind. All Martin did was turn around and throw him to the ice . It would have ended there except Stetcher got up and dropped the gloves.

    You mention Martin is often the initial aggressor. What really happens though is Martin is making hard legal body checks, Some players on other teams object to these, You may have noticed last season the Leafs were often getting pushed around and intimidated. It is true the league is getting faster with smaller, lighter players getting their well deserved chance to play in the NHL. The Leafs have become one of the leaders in drafting this type of player. Some of our rookies are of this ilk. A lot of our hot prospects like Bracco, Brooks, Timashov, Kapanen who are projected to make the NHL are of this nature.

    Like it or not hockey is still a physical game. Our defence is not very physical, Without Martin our forwards are not overly physical. Why 4 years? Look only as far as next year, Komarov and Polak could be gone. Who is left to throw the odd bodycheck? I know there are a few folks here who think there is no need for bodychecking at all anymore. Well the Bible tells us ” It is better to give than receive”

    I think the Leafs believe they will soon be a playoff team. Everyone knows the physical aspect of the game ratchets up in the playoffs. Why 2.5 million against the cap. Everyone knows we could end up at or below the cap floor next year. Martin could even end up exposed in the expansion draft.

    I never believed Martin was signed to a four year contract, by the Leafs for his fighting ability or as protection for the young guys. Only their line mates and the defenemen who happen to be on the ice, can help them if needed. In today’s NHL you must have some physical presence. Martin was signed for his ability to bodycheck and superior skating. It gives defencemen less time and space to set up their next play. No doubt they also knew he could fight.

    • Jefflechef

      I could post a reply to this article here, but you have summed up my thoughts exactly, especially with regard to that Stecher fight: Stecher instigated it!

      • LukeDaDrifter

        To be fair I should of added that like everyone else I would like to see a little more offensive output from our fourth line, Their real role as kdeeth pointed out is to give the top nine a little extra rest now and then. Maybe help out on the PK as well.

    • DukesRocks

      Sometimes I wonder where the writers of this site heads are at. They try to use stats to justify wins, losses and the worth of a player. Jeff’s breakdown of the Vancouver 3rd period was imaginary, to say the least. He never questioned the fictitious charge call on Kadri and made the hit on Sedin sound predatory. His first reaction after Martin vs Stecher incident was, Martin is putting our rookies in danger. He actually “believed” Babcock’s postgame interview where he asked Martin to play nice after the Riley fight/spear. If you read between the lines, it looked like Martin was sending a message.

      Now we have Ryan and Jeff stating Martin is more risk vs reward. You have one implying he’s putting Leaf rookies in danger and the other stating he’s not worth the cost. Well, guess what ice hockey can be a dangerous sport. The sooner the rookies understand the culture of the NHL the better. Some games will be a walk in the park, same games you’ll battle and some games are down in the gutter WAR. Come playoff time all games are a war. The sooner the rookies acclimate themselves to the game, the better. There is always a hint of danger everytime a player takes the ice. To suggest Martin is putting them at greater risk is as dumb a comment as they come.

      So far all our rookies have produced. While it may not show in the stats, Martin’s presence on the team indirectly opens ice for the baby Leafs. Thus far, I haven’t seen an incident where the situation called for Martin and he didn’t answer the bell. I haven’t heard a peep or displeasure out of Leaf management regarding Martin’s performance. In reference to Martin’s point production and salary. I don’t get the issue here. So he has one point and makes 2.5M. His salary is no way jeopardizes the Leafs future cap space. I don’t know what the average NHL salary is, but Martin’s can’t be that far off. In reference to points, I for one have no expectation of offense. I expect his line to do what 4th lines do, energize the team by physical play.

      Lastly and most importantly, Leafs management has been saying “we’re in a rebuild”. Some of the moves the Leafs make are questionable and seem odd to fans. The strategy being deployed by the Leafs is unknown. Do they want to start winning now? Do they want to make the playoff? Bring up Gauthier and get rid of Smith. I’m pretty sure the Leafs brass have all the stats, they see all the angles and have concluded what is the best direction to go. So sit back, relax and see how the season plays out.

      • LukeDaDrifter

        People seem to have quickly forgot that at the start of the season Babcock really had his work cut out for him. The Leafs were blowing big leads on a fairly regular basis. The number of high danger scoring chances we were giving the opposition was way too many. It has takes time to get all the new guys up to speed. I am sure on practice days that was what they were mostly working on. Slowly but surely we are getting tighter defensively. With two new guys on defence Babcock was constantly moving them about looking for the best combinations. That seems to have settled down for now. The top nine have mostly stayed intact but have been asked to improve their defensive aspect of the game. It looks to me they are getting better at it as each game goes by. I remember watching one game. Every time we got a shot on net that produced a rebound it was quickly cleared by the defence. Everytime the other guys got a shot on our net that produced a rebound their forwards grabbed the puck. Kadri has been asked to play a different role thiis year. There was one thing wrong with Kadri’s hit on Sedin. It was very close to becoming the head as the main point of contact. It was so close one had to watch the replay to see if the head was not the target. Sedin went into a scoring crouch. As Kadri glided in he kept getting lower to make sure the shoulder was the main point of contact. Kadri did just catch the top of Sedin’s shoulder then slipped up and ended up knocking his helmet off. The NHL and I agree, would like the players to avoid making these type of high risk checks. Nobody gains by having players out of the game with concussions that might of been avoided. It is fair to say at high speed players will make a mistake now and then. In Kadri’s case there was no intent to injury, just take him out of the play.Smith is here because he is reasonably good at winning 50% of the faceoffs. Gauthier has a decent reputation on the draws. Last year getting his first taste of NHL centers, his faceoffs dropped to around 40%. Watching only some highlights this year, I noticed his skating is greatly improved.

        I don’t believe Leafs management’s moves are that hard to figure out. The plan was to let the veterans play out their contracts. Bring up two or three rookies like Nylander to continue their development in their first year of NHL. Drafting Matthews, and the quality of a lot of our other rookies, pushed some of those NHL veterans right into the AHL. Cap wise we did not plan make any huge moves this year. I think the management will continue to ride it out. Unless a sweet offer comes along. Nielson, just out of junior is already our #1 defenceman on the Marlies. He has one quality that is a must for a top defencemen. He can thread the needle from the point. He rarely has a shot blocked. The Leafs wisely are giving him some AHL time to work on the rest of his game.

        I think it is unreasonable to criticize Lamorello for the length of contracts he signs his players to. If he believes players like Rielly, Kadri, Andersen, and Martin will be an asset to the team he generally signs them quickly to about 4/5 years at a fair market value. Neither over paid or underpaid. Otherwise thay get a one year or two at the most deal.

        I think it is unfair to criticize any players on the Leafs this year when they are unexpectedly producing the most exciting hockey we have seen in years.

        Earlier this year I read here, that we are a year behind the Sabres. Looks like we are a year ahead of the Sabres and accelerating .

        Earlier this year I read here, we are 4/5 years away from contending. I think we will contend next year, maybe even get a sniff this year.

        The rebuild is far from over. The plan is in place for the next phase. We need to show some patience and not expect it to happen overnight, just because we are close. I am not trying to imply that everything is perfect. I am saying I see no reason to start writing so many articles about what is wrong with the Leafs.

        Look around the league. A lot of teams have been trying to be in our position for years….. Young team likely to get even younger and better.

        The Leafs now have the players to ice a good top nine format. It remains to be seen if we morph into a full blown top 12. The Leafs have more speed and skill in junior, in Europe, on the Marlies, in the KHL. It could come to pass.Lets not forget Martin has exceptional speed for a 4th line player. He fits the mold.

  • Tigon

    Good article Jeff. For those who missed the point, in short Jeff is saying that Martin isn’t coming as advertised and his role could have been filled by a cheaper option with a shorter commitment. When Martin does fight it hasn’t been to send a message or protect the team either, which makes the signing even less appealing. I would rather a skill fourth line with Holland, Leivo and Soshnikov but it is what it is; I knew that since the signing.

    I would agree the Chara fight was actually not Martin’s fault; he was answering the call of the other teams captain who was trying the send a message or spark his team in a lopsided affair.

  • Stan Smith

    I agree that Martin hasn’t been as effective as I had hoped he would be to this point. i’m not going to argue that he is overpaid. But, the season is young. I think Martin and Babcock are trying to sort out exactly what his role will be with the team. With the Isles, he knew his role and played it very well. I fully think he will be better as the season progresses, and the games get tougher.

    I will say one thing. You can call Martin’s hit on Beaulieu charging, or boarding, but it definitely was not late. The puck wasn’t even off of Beaulieu’s stick for a full second before Martin made contact with him.