The Matt Martin trajectory was predictable three years ago, to the point that some of us expected almost all of this: As a popular pending free agent coming off a $1 million cap hit, he was going to command much more money and term that the Islanders wouldn’t budget on an already handsomely paid fourth line.
He went to a team that paid top dollar — Toronto, $10 million over four years, at an average of $2.5 million per year — that would regret or want out of that cap hit by the end of the deal.
With a front-loaded deal ($6 million paid out over the first two years, with another $1.5 paid in bonus in July to start year three), he’d be an enticing and much cheaper reunion candidate for the Islanders once that deal weighed on the Leafs’ books.
The only surprise was that it was Lou Lamoriello — a fan of Martin’s who signed him in Toronto — who brought Martin back to Long Island rather than Garth Snow.
The question for the Islanders is can Martin, who was frequently scratched and bumped by talent out of the Leafs lineup last season (playing a career-low 50 games), add enough to not merit the same treatment during his return?
He is pretty clearly not good enough to command a regular, scratch-free spot on a Stanley Cup contender. But the Islanders aren’t a contender. Like the Leafs when Martin signed in Toronto, they are a team trying to transform themselves — “lay the foundation,” in Barry Trotz parlance — into a unit that has the habits, the work ethic and the culture to build something more than just a single playoff series win when more talent arrives.
The Islanders have been good at adding prospects over the years, but arguably not so good at incorporating them into a “winning” culture.
So while he’s not an “upgrade,” he’ll likely serve a purpose and yes, add a much-needed spark. Given the other players the Islanders added over the summer, he’ll be a relentless presence on a team that can expect some dark nights. And although Barry Trotz has plenty of “old school” in him, I suspect he’ll be more willing to use Martin selectively — i.e., not an automatic in every lineup — than past Islanders coaches. Trotz might even be able to help Martin improve at age 29.
In a weird way, Lamoriello’s decision to stock up on Khuhnhackls and aging Komarovs and Filppulas makes Martin’s return look almost refreshing. The Islanders aren’t building a Ferrari and undermining it with a cheap out-of-place part. They’re restoring an old muscle car and Martin will at least add some roar while the team is inefficiently burning fuel and being passed by finer-tuned machines.
Martin is exceedingly popular around the team, in the locker room and in the community, where he continued to engage and benefit charities even after he’d signed with Ontario’s black hole of the hockey universe.
He also has the history with the team to know why Islanders carry a massive chip on their collective shoulders. He’s been there. He was part of Friday Fight Night and all the baggage that fed it. He was part of the long climb out of the 2009 bottoming out, and he lived the endless drama around the Coliseum and where the team would play next.
He arguably bleeds blue and orange as much as any other player on the squad.
The Islanders would be making a mistake to think putting Martin back with Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck will automatically recreate the “best fourth line in hockey” that peaked three or four years ago. And they’re surely making a mistake if they think Martin should be in the lineup every night — even by the standards they’ve established with this summer’s other additions.
There was a time when I feared the Islanders would be on the verge of contention with an assortment of emerging young talent and Snow would bring Martin back for nostalgia’s sake while Jack Capuano would give him an outsized role.
So much has changed since that fear, and the Islanders are back to square one. In a new rebuild, a culture reset. In that context, I’ll take the spark.