People who ignore the Islanders would never think it, and lemmings who found February 11, 2011's 9-3 thumping of the Penguins to be an Islanders-led black mark on the league would consider it heresy, but the poster boy for the NHL Office of "No Really, You Can Check Legally" has to be Matt Martin.
Martin hits, and hits a lot. Maybe the stat trackers give him an unintended bump -- he broke the league record this year -- but he pretty clearly delivers body checks with more frequency than nearly, if not all of, the entire league.
Yet his discipline record this year was impressive, his restraint in many situations where he could've hurt a vulnerable "fellow NHLPA brother" admirable. It was frankly the model of how NHLers can keep the physicality in the game without using its participants' increased speed and mass as an opportunity to end other participants' careers. And here Martin appears to have mastered that at age 22. (He turned 23 in May.)
Martin has two notable disciplinary marks on his record from the 2010-11 season, one for a loose but not vicious high hit, the other for a no-no when he crossed the line and tried to sucker a turtle out of its shell during that emotional Friday night Fight Fest with the Penguins.
Not a vicious predator on the ice, but someone to keep an eye on given those two situations. So it was with some awe that Islanders fans who watched game after game (yes, we exist) saw Martin not only pile up the hits in 2011-12 but also visibly display restraint time after time when his target became suddenly vulnerable -- even those who did the last-second "You can't hit me!" back turn that frustrates everyone who thinks clean, hard bodychecking should be a signature attribute of this sport.
In a way, Martin proved you really can be a physical player -- the most physical in the league by one admittedly debatable measure -- without being an unrepentant tool who needs countless reminders and a double-secret ultimatum to figure it out.
Bodychecking is a skill. The fact so many borderline players don't realize that -- they tend to think because they've laced the skates they have a divine right to make contact with anyone, anywhere, in any situation under cover of "Hey, I play on the edge," -- is why the sport faces a tough disciplinary problem. Avoiding dangerous hits requires skating skill, agility and judgment. Yet so many players who resort to a niche of physical play are, not surprisingly, weaker skaters. It's not enough that a player can get somewhere to deliver a hit if he can't also anticipate and assess how things might turn out poorly, and react accordingly.
Unlike say Raffi Torres, Martin displayed that anticipation and quick reaction on countless occasions this season. By Shanny, I think he's got it.
Oh yeah, also: In 2011-12 Martin played pretty decent bottom-six hockey with a variety of linemates too. The cast that rotated around him included a whole lot of Jay Pandolfo and Marty Reasoner, a stretch with Josh Bailey and Brian Rolston, with a dose of some Tim Wallace here and some Rhett Rakhshani there, and a sampling of Micheal Haley when he was up. He rarely had the benefit of regular linemates with whom to establish an "identity" kind of line.
He more often than not was the only "enforcer" in the Isles lineup (though calling him one is selling him short), yet Martin did a good job of not automatically taking himself off the ice for five minutes just because the other team's fighter needed to justify his job.
On that note, one of Martin's best moments was when he combined all of the above attributes to turn Ben Eager's job justification ritual against him.
The RFA Question
The Islanders don't have a whole lot of pre-UFA internal decisions this summer. All of their 2010 draft picks are accounted for (so no June 1, 2012 deadlines there), and their list of restricted free agents isn't heavy with import. Martin represents the most significant RFA, and though he and the Islanders went toward the deadline for his first contract, his value is a lot clearer now. He's become what they hoped he would.
|2011-12 - Matt Martin||80||7||7||14||-17||121||0||12:09||1:16||374*||130||5.4%|
*League leader. Like, ever.
Vernon was a Fiddler
You caught him up too high
Maxime wasn't fighting
He dropped and feigned to die
Lessons at a young age
Appear taken to heart
There is a time and a place
How hits and fights shall start
You answer when it's needed
But not all of the time
Not every random goon should
Rack minutes on your dime
If this the new Matt Martin
It's time he be re-signed
A one-time fifth-round draft pick
A solid oh-eight find
As with all our report cards, this is where you issue your grade relative to the expectations you had for Martin entering the 2011-12 season. Maybe you hoped he'd score more or less, maybe you hoped he'd fight more or less, etc. Maybe the minus-17 scares you (though personally I think he rounded out his game well).
Though he tends to take some low-quality shots from distance that skew that stat a little, his simple dedication to getting the puck to the net -- or go to the net when someone else is sending it -- is appreciated.
Don't mean to bias the grading here, but his clean hitting night after night is where he exceeded my expectations by a longshot. He kept it up, too -- this was not October conversion followed by a November relapse. His evolution was well apparent at the half way mark.
Martin looks like he'll be useful in a variety of wing roles as needed going forward. If he keeps up the smart -- almost compassionate, really -- physical element he displayed this past season, he can fill a role for years to come.