In the midst of all the headlines regarding the NHL’s current labor issues and (on a more specific scale) the Isles’ arena woes and trade drama lies the rather important footnote known as Matt Martin.
One month ago, Martin was one of two Islanders players to reject their qualifying offers. Since then, defenseman Ty Wishart (the other player) has agreed to terms and signed. The last that’s been reported on Martin is that the two parties are negotiating a contract, but nothing’s been set in stone.
So what, you figure — bottom-six forward, good size, but no real appeal there. Not when you consider both the tangibles and the intangibles Martin brings to the table. He’ll never win an award for his scoring, but he can put a few pucks in the net — and anyway, the Islanders have John Tavares (eventually) for that. For the role Matt Martin is expected to fill, he has done an excellent job. He led the league and set a record in hits last season (374 — second was Dustin Brown with 293) and took 15 major penalties as part of his 121- PIM season total (rather disciplined for someone who hits as often as he does). Simply put, he provided the bulk of the Isles’ toughness in 2011-12 when it was in short supply.
There’s also the intangible aspect of leadership. Martin was captain when he played in Sarnia in the OHL, and he’s certainly led by example, as has Tavares. They’ve each earned reputations as heart-and-soul players on the Isles roster, and they came within 20 votes of each other for the fan-bestowed Bob Nystrom award for “leadership, hustle, and dedication” (Martin won). When other players perhaps took a shift or two off, Martin and Tavares were often the two still competing despite the score.
Their roles, of course, are vastly different — they’re on separate halves of the depth chart, Tavares being the scorer, Martin the rock-’em-sock-’em wrecking ball with skill– but each exemplifies the “Commitment” mantra the Isles have been trying so hard to sell. Tavares uses his skill to create amazing plays; Martin is willing to stand up for his teammates and sacrifice his body to make something happen. Both are determined, both work extremely hard during the offseason, and both want to win on Long Island.
Stats-wise, JT is definitely more valuable, but as far as identity goes, together they aren’t bad cornerstones to build upon. That’s exactly what the Isles need. Add in Martin’s community involvement (he’s part of Defending the Blue Line, a military non-profit organization) and you have a great character player, which in many circumstances overshadows the stats.
On the other hand, Martin has only played two seasons in the NHL. While I doubt his style of play will change very much (he might be able to score a few more goals over time), he doesn’t have a whole lot to bargain with — he can’t take the Isles to arbitration, and the organization will hold onto his rights even if he decides to jump ship to Europe, which is little guarantee for a physical player who didn’t exactly improve scoring-wise from Year 1 to Year 2. If he decides not to agree to the deal the Isles eventually put together for him, he’ll sit out an entire year. He knows this, and so there’s little doubt that the sides will come to an agreement at some point before the NHL season starts up (and he won’t be overpaid).
Any way you spin it, Matt Martin should and will be an Islander this coming season. Fourth-liner or no, he’s an important part of the team and a prime example of the kind of player the Isles need more of — one who doesn’t quit.