I don’t get to breathe the salt air of my roots as often as I’d like, but this year I made it back. Borrowed a set of gear when I was there and made it out to the old Tuesday/Saturday skates in town, just as chippy and competitive as ever. Some new legs and a new barn, but the faces and the best voices were basically the same. You all know that one voice, the rough and tumble guy with the dry wit, giving birth to those special dressing room laughs. This very specific brand of camaraderie, it’s hard to comprehend the tie between teammates. The lengths you’ll go on the ice for your buddies. Combative souls connected on a search for triumph, and then someone to celebrate or pound hard liquor with after said triumph. That undeniable hockey kinship can push you to your highest heights and bring out your level best. You want to win with the men you sincerely love, and when you do, it’s remarkable.
Among those familiar voices of home was that of my Uncle Billy. Billy married my mom’s younger sister and was nothing short of an idol of mine growing up. A club champion golfer at 17, a great musician, coached minor hockey, charismatic and kind, just a quality person. A real stud. His one and only glaring flaw, which continues to hold him back to this day….Billy’s not a Leafs fan.
Montreal was his team of origin, as was the case out East for many youths of the seventies. Billy was an Al McNeil supporter, a local Cape Breton legend and former Canadiens GM. It was MacNeil’s unjust dismissal from Montreal which sent Billy from Les Habitant and into the arms of the aspiring New York Islanders. Who, at the time, was waiting with open arms and championship banners to follow.
See, I respect Billy. I respect what he has to say because I know his intelligence level, I know his experiences, and I know he understands the intricacies of sport. Our conversation led us where it always does, to hockey of course, and I asked for his intimate opinion on the Islanders situation. Long Island, Brooklyn, New York, whoever they were that week, they were struggling at the time, this being Xmas of last year. The Isles, an organization seemingly on the rise, had taken a step in the wrong direction. What was the reasoning? The matter of facts in which he delivered his assessment of the foremost contributing factor to the Isles little stumble very much surprised me, and I’ll share it with you now.
“Jude, more than anything else, they really miss Matt Martin.”
I can promise you all Billy isn’t one to pander or patronize. He speaks the truth as he sees it. There’s no inclination for him to stroke the ego of the sickeningly over-covered Toronto Maple Leafs. Even in knowing that, I still had to question his level of seriousness. He insisted he meant his words and I’ll paraphrase the explanation. His point of view was formed by the feeling the Islanders had a real unity about them; a team identity was being forged. An identity much of which outside of JT stemmed from its fourth line of Cal Clutterbuck, Casey Czeikals, and of course, Matt Martin. An “energy” line to top all energy lines, arguably the most effective of its ilk during the 2014/15 campaign. Losing Martin from the left side of that group in free agency was more detrimental than the franchise had feared, and although they made a significant offer to avoid it, Martin signed elsewhere. The Isles liked their mix, their room. But at what cost? Free agency is a situationally based bidding war. A war the Maple Leafs won for the services of Martin by seemingly over paying to acquire the NHL hits leader over the past several years, inking him to a much debated 4 year/10 million dollar contract.
And what is it exactly the Leafs were paying for? Did this signing go beyond the ice? Could the loss of the Islanders driver of team spirit be Toronto’s gain? This was obviously the Maple Leafs hope. Martin would bring with him; here it is, the money shot…intangibles. But moreover, if he did, how can we ever know?
I’m sure it’s too late in many cases, but before you start to hammer the piss out of this theory, I’ll assure you that we, Billy and I, recognized, acknowledged, and smirked over the problems in his assertion. I imagine losing Kyle Okposo would be considered a bit of a hurdle. Or how about the underrated Frans Nilsson? Not to mention goaltending woes and the disappointing play of newly acquired Andrew Ladd, who was obviously expected to pick up the slack of any leadership void Martin left behind. Nevertheless, with all things considered, he never wavered in his belief the most critical loss was the loss of Matt Martin. A rare individual, both in personality and in the role.
It’s entirely possible a significant percentage of you probably don’t give one solitary fuck about the thoughts of somebody’s uncle. Listen, I get it. I didn’t even want to write this frigging story. Yeah, Matt Martin has a fan in me. No doubt. But who wants to deal with the task of explaining the unexplainable. Especially to some of the turds that’ll chop this to bits. I didn’t have it in me. The Leafs blog scene had worn me down. Like Al Pacino said, “I’m too old, I’m too tired, I’m too fuckin’ blind.” And I can be very blind when it comes to hockey. I have my values, and some are admittedly antiquated. But hey, I know what I know, and I’ll always be true to it, to a fault. So when the expansion draft came along, and the Maple Leafs chose to do the apparently unthinkable and protect our protector, the reaction pissed me right off. Unfortunately, in doing so, Toronto left prospect Brendan Leipsic exposed and lost him to the Vegas Golden Knights. Too bad losing a guy like that for nothing. I’m sure the Leafs exhausted all trade options, and if Leipsic didn’t make the Leafs this year he’d be subject to waivers, but it still stings. There were questions as to why the Maple Leafs would protect Martin over say a Leipsic or a Rychel, or why protect in the first place. Questions that, and I’ll have to apologize, frustrated me. Starting with leaving Martin exposed since he’d never get claimed. Are you shitting me? Vegas will be dressing a roster that could finish 32nd in a 31 team league. They also have a game to sell. They also won’t be up against the cap for several years. Martin would unquestionably be the among most popular player in Vegas and as we’ve covered a tremendous influence on the youth. Lou and the Leafs knew this. And even if they didn’t take him, knowing the season Toronto had and the relationships he’s developed with the kids why the hell would you even consider the risk of messing with the dynamics of that room. My guess is they didn’t. Protecting our protector was in all likelihood a total no brainer.
If I’m going to be perfectly honest here though, I think I expected more from Matt Martin, the player. Upon signing there was talk of how Babcock used some of his grinding forward in DET and how they grew their game and evolved. Now Martin isn’t a carbon copy of those Wings wingers but he was coming off 10 goals, and in Toronto, we always expect an upshot. Maybe kill some penalties. As a large framed man who can keep up, Martin was always a noticeable opponent. I guess there were times maybe I wanted a little more impact aside from the forecheck and subsequent body blows. I’ll tell you why that’s ok.
Martin should have slid perfectly into his 4th line LW role filling the void of a physical presence Leafs management was looking for. But the line, in general, was a work in progress. I am of the mindset this primarily had to do with the middle of the ice. It was clear early Peter Holland wouldn’t be Mike Babcock’s guy for that position, and the team turned to a familiar face from the previous season in Ben Smith. Faceoffs and penalty killing were points of emphasis in Smith’s placement in the lineup. But the performance just wasn’t quite near where it needed to be. Then a hand injury forced Smith out of the lineup making way for the 4th line center in waiting, earmarked for the job for some time now, the Goat, Freddy Gauthier.
Gauthier looked good between Martin and Soshnikov, adding an interesting dynamic of size to the unit. You could start to see the fit with Martin having another tower to work the boards with. However, Gauthier’s rookie status scared Babcock from certain situations and the ice time reflected so. Then Ben Smith came back from IR and yeah, no. In many ways, it was hard for Martin to find any groove. It wasn’t until the deadline acquisition of Brian Boyle that we truly saw what Matt Martin, the player, could offer.
During the playoff series versus the Capitals, it would be hard to ask for anything more from the line of Martin, Boyle, and rookie Kasperi Kapanen. Over an intense stretch of postseason games where everyone finishes their checks, Martin proved effective. The line even chipped in some offense, and Martin got himself a couple of apples and rang the crossbar nearly adding a huge tally at a crucial point. I won’t act as though Martin was all of a sudden a threat, but he managed to get on the sheet while maintaining a much-needed element of brute force, and the line was anything but sheltered. Now mind you he did go absolutely apeshit at one point and put us down two men, but the game has a way of making sure you kill those off for your bro’s. The Leafs wouldn’t hang one of their leaders and Toronto came out ahead for it. If that’s not really why they killed it off, who cares. Let yourself be a fan, feel the romanticism.
There are the Coles notes for the on-ice evaluation of Matt Martin’s contribution minus the shot suppression bar from his hero chart. 2.5 mill worth? Probably not on performance alone. Year one I’d say was a fair showing. Million bucks? Whether Martin earned the remaining 1.5 million of his money off the ice is near impossible to evaluate. How do you place a value on things like comfort, peace of mind? How do you put a monitory value on the effect of positive presence? And what of this intimidation nonsense?
You know there was a clip on that Leafs100 series (or whatever it was called) this season that really grabbed my attention for a couple reasons. It was of Nazem Kadri joking with 51 & 44, claiming he could play D in the NHL. Gardiner, who got burned in the segment on the girth of his noggin, had the best chuckle at the thought. He wondered how groooovy Naz would think playing defense was with Zach Kassian barreling in on him. In their playful moment, it reminded me of the realities of the game and life as an NHL defenseman. I’ll bet there’s no worse or more thankless (maybe getting banged up on draws) job in hockey than having to turn around and get pucks. Retrieving pucks and avoiding getting slammed on the forecheck, it sucks on the best of nights. When you know Matt Martin is on the opposing bench whacking off to the thoughts of belting you clean through the Zamboni gates, it gets even less palatable. So does that rattle every opposition, knowing pregame you’re gonna be run at several times? No, for sure not everyone. Does it make some lose a little sleep or make them a little uneasy to the point it alters their game? Who knows, right.
Alright, we’ve danced around it long enough. What about this whole one ice protector thing. Is it bull shit? Do players really feel better knowing someone has their back? Is it any different than, I don’t know, going to a club with the boys. Nice to have some muscle around just in case. I mean the boys are just out for good times, hoping to score. If you’re in a strange town it’s hard to relax. Having some backup, maybe it helps you to chill and just yourself. Fewer nerves, one less thing to worry about. I bet getting off the plane and heading into the arenas in Philly or Boston, the feeling ain’t much different. Or what about that guy at work you just can’t help but be in a good mood when you’re around. Makes the job better this guy. This cat is valuable in the workplace, even if he’s not as gifted as most. If anyone from sector 7G comes over and starts shit talking the young workers this guy is first to speak up, then maybe stand, then possibly sharpen a head, and then if he has to he’ll nail it into the wall. Look, there’s always gonna be shit talkers, but infinity less. They usually just go through the lunch line and keep to themselves.
It’s exactly like what Babcock means when he talks about “keeping the flies off”. So is this valid? Is there merit here, does this really happen, this deterrence. Any time one of the young guns get hit the natural response is “Matt Martin didn’t stop that.” Of course, he didn’t. They’ll still all take their lumps. But it’s like a tree falling in the forest. What about the countless times a player just says nah, not gonna buttend Matthews. Not worth it. Meh, think I’ll leave Marner be. Martin looks especially hulking tonight.
How many gloves in the face did the Leafs kids have to deal with last year? Any? Boy, I remember Sundin’s last year here where they had nobody to step up like they did in years past and he was tortured. Constant scrums, I vividly recall leaving the rink one night seething that our star could get manhandled without a whisper from the group to put an end to it. Thanks to the low hanging fruit of Orr and McLaren the role of the tough guy in Toronto has turned more from puncher to punchline. Those Leafs teams issues stretched far beyond Colton and Frazier, but the damage was done. Funny thing is the goal of their insertion in the lineups was never about their play, obviously. It was entirely psychological. Did the bully tactics work? I would say there were instances, but in the end, the truculent mentality took the fall with the rest of the team, as it should have. But let’s be real, that core of forwards was maybe the softest in Maple Leafs history, and an influx of testosterone and bravado was the attempt, not a damn thing to do with Corsi. More human nature than hockey. Anyways, times are a changing but for what it’s worth it’s not like David Booth and his possession numbers came along and saved the Leafs from the doldrums of the 4th line. Finally though, with the signing of Moore, Toronto may just ice a 4th line we’ve been waiting for.
Now, none of this above is to say an NHL team needs or should employ an enforcer. I’m not taking us backward; I know the game is moving on from physical confrontation. What I will say is every situation is it’s own. Babcock’s Red Wings, they were mentally tough. They didn’t need anyone. The BlackHawks early on had muscle but grew to the point they could look after themselves as they acclimatized to the league, much like what will happen to the Leafs eventually. They’re fine now without a heavyweight or even a middleweight. Then there is back to back Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. They sure didn’t need anybody. So why then would they spend a first round pick this offseason to acquire a resident tough guy, Ryan Reaves? Because it’s been a long two seasons for their stars, and they’ve taken a lot of abuse. I’d figure the Pens, and Coach Sullivan said as much, just wanted to give their guys as much room as possible and maybe keep the liberties to a dull roar. No wild claims, just the timing to add a different element made sense for them. They also paid a premium to do so. Players like Reaves are rare these days. A tough guy who can lay the body and take a regular shift without hurting you or be a liability, not many left. It’s funny, the more I think about Martin, the more I see him for the asset he is.
I know I could be completely wrong here. So what I’ll do is leave open the possibility everything I talked about above, the arguments in favor of Martin, the “intangibles”, that maybe it’s all make believe horse shit. And maybe, just maybe, I’m a fool. There’s an excellent chance this is true. But at least I’m a fool in good company. Shanny, Lou Lamoriello, Mike Babcock, even Uncle Billy, they believe in what Matt Martin brings to the table that doesn’t show up on a graph or score sheet. Perhaps one day when the dinosaurs are gone, and Kyle Dubas is running the show we won’t have to put up with such archaic hockey rhetoric. The same Dubas who has had Justin Johnston on his roster and brings back Dicky Clune year after year. Another Leaf/Marlie whose contribution on the ice and off ice care of the kids in the system you can’t put a price tag on. And that’s the other thing with these guys. We talk about protection and policing the ice. What about policing our group? Clune, Martin, those are men who keep the room light, keep spirits up, but if someone is falling out of line or needs a kick in the ass, they’re the ones to do it. They have respect. Often it’s players of their mold who mentor and guide in a way a coach simply can’t. Especially once practice is over. They’re gonna let the boys have fun, show them the ropes, but their job extends beyond the ice surface into keeping everyone focused and on the same page. To help keep these young stars with the world at their feet from going off the rails. Or literally from going on them. They’re taking the time to teach our youth how to live right and be good men. Put a value on that for me.
The time may come where Matt Martin has to take a knee and find himself a healthy scratch here and there. I’m fine with that, no joke. But I’m not there yet, and I talked about being in the company of fools, poll the players. Of the 17 skaters, how many would you venture to guess want Matt Martin in the lineup, night after night? I know for certain Auston and Mitchell do. Isn’t that alone good enough? Isn’t their wanting him on that bench with them and believing in his importance enough? Perception is reality, and if they think he helps then by God, he helps. Don’t kid yourselves either, this upcoming season he could be more important than ever. Egos are going to develop, these kids are rock stars, and part of Martin’s duty will be to keep everyone grounded. Zero tolerance for anyone being a dick. Sometimes that’s saying the things that aren’t easy to say but a teammate with clout in the room usually has to be the one to say them for it to take hold and carry weight.
Another reason Martin might be needed now more than ever is the Maple Leafs won’t be taking anyone by surprise in 2017. So you better get used to the fact Toronto’s talent are going to get played a whole hell of a lot harder. When they do, Martin will be there to answer.
If the Toronto Maple Leafs do win that elusive Stanley Cup in the not too distant future, I want Matty Martin front row center of the team photo with his arms around his boys. Smiling big. Because why the fuck wouldn’t ya.