Photo Credit: Dan Hamilton/USA TODAY SPORTS
The Toronto Maple Leafs kicked off their offseason earlier this weekend by signing a Sarnia Sting legend, born in Ontario, and represented by Newport Sports to a multi-year contract. No, it wasn’t Steven Stamkos, but ex-New York Islanders winger Matt Martin. This signing has polarized the community a bit, so let’s take in some of the positives, negatives, and in-betweens.
- The first thing that many will point out to you is Martin’s shot suppression wizardry. In his past five years, his Relative Attempts-Against Per 60 minutes have been -1.96, -3.74, 3.26, -6.29, and -4.43. That’s four of five seasons where the team has given up fewer shots with him on the ice than without him.
- One thing that’s worth nothing here: He does sacrifice that in offence. Last year was his best season in that regard, where his CF60Rel was “just” -5.35, bringing his overall relative possession percentage to -0.45%. At no point in the past five years has Martin been a possession driver.
- I’m curious as to how all of these stats are affected by playing on the “best fourth line in history”, though. While there are some elite two-way forwards in the top of the shot suppression class, there are a staggering amount of depth players there too. Rich Clune’s Relative CA60 in the past five years is better than Pavel Datsyuk and Joe Thornton. Patrick Kaleta, Patrick Bordeleau, and Chris Neil are near the top of the list as well. Analytics used to identify players like Colton Orr and Paul Bissonette as top-end shot suppressors. There’s a case to be made that sometimes, gritty players play against other gritty players and use up a lot of their ice time in shifts were both teams are doing a lot of hitting, yapping, and shoving, and not a lot of trying to score. If your two-way game is defined around sending a message to another message sender, you’re not a Selke candidate.
- Martin does give the Leafs something I’m more than content with having on the roster: A hockey-capable enforcer. Fighting is leaving the game bit by bit, but it’s not gone. Martin’s eleven fights last season were more than the entire Leafs roster, and according to our friends at HockeyFights.com, he didn’t flat out lose a single one. We undervalue the concept of having someone who can drop the gloves when a boiling point hits, rather than calling somebody up or pulling someone out of the press box to play two minutes a night in the grudge match that follows a few months later.
- I also feel that Martin could benefit the team not so much in protecting the young players, but in teaching them. Contrary to popular belief, toughness can be taught much easier than skill if you get to the player young enough. The Marlies are a good example of this: Nikita Soshnikov came into the season as an unassuming skilled forward. A few months with Rich Clune turned a kid who barely spoke English into a pest with puck skills when he got to the NHL. I don’t think having Matt Martin is going to protect William Nylander and Mitch Marner very much, but he could be useful in making them be able to fend for themselves.
- Our very own Draglikepull brought up yesterday that Martin and Tyler Bozak have very similar even-strength points per 60 minutes over the past two years. Many took this as a praise for Martin. Considering we’ve been harping on Bozak for being unproductive despite his minutes over the years, maybe we should pump the breaks on that.
- Now, with all of this considered, four years seems like an insane amount of time to commit to a player like Martin. Yes, Andrew Ladd is somehow a 7-year man, and this still isn’t in David Clarkson territory, but it’s a lot of commitment to a player that’s not going to be a part of your core. Presently, Martin joins Nazem Kadri, Jake Gardiner, Morgan Rielly, Frederik Andersen, Mitch Marner, and Auston Matthews as the only roster players who will enter the season with a contract commitment for 2018/19. Does that not sound a little off?
- Lou Lamoriello also hinted that he felt that everybody who signed on July 1st signed for above market value, and wouldn’t stipulate that Martin wasn’t one of them. That’s not what you want to hear; while the 2016/17 roster isn’t exactly a beacon of financial wizardry, it’s one that’s trying to shed a poor past. Say what you want about “it’s just one player”, but death by a thousand papercuts has to be considered here. A team in a salary cap league that signs their entire roster to market value finishes fifteenth.
- One place where Martin is in Clarkson territory, interestingly, is that he might be the least talented player ever to get the Newport treatment. That’s a front-loaded contract with buyout protection, something that became the nightmare of Leafs fans when they realized that Clarkson should have been inescapable. Just 35% of Martin’s contract is paid in salary, with the rest coming in signing bonuses. If he were to fail to reach expectations, the buyouts would look something like.
Matt Martin buyout scenarios
Before 17/18: $1.78 $2.03 $2.03 $0.28 $0.28 0.28
Before 18/19: $2.0 $2.0 $0.25 $0.25
Before 19/20: $2.0 $0.25
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) July 3, 2016
- So, next to no savings. If the doesn’t fit, he has to be traded. It’s a huge dice roll. Thankfully for the Leafs, he doesn’t have any form of no trade or no movement clause attached to his contract, so the best “buyout” like scenario if things go sour is probably a salary-retained trade.
- His deal does look palatable enough to be expansion draft fodder, though. I wonder if, knowing that the cap doesn’t matter very much this year, they’ll leave him unprotected and get the benefits of short term without the concern of the other three years. If that happens, this signing instantly becomes a successful parachute maneuver.
- By the way, the hope that this is going to lead to the Leafs signing John Tavares in 2018? Don’t hold your breath. Other than the fact I don’t see Tavares coming here, Martin would’ve been a better recruiting chip for Stamkos, who he played with in junior, is still friends with now, shares an agent with, and was a free agent with at the same time. That didn’t work, so I doubt this is a prepping for a second swing.
I don’t fully know where I stand with Martin. I said before they signed him that I felt he was a bit underrated, but I also proceeded with caution knowing that he was getting paid. That’s what it comes down to, really; from an entertainment perspective, I love watching aggressive forecheckers like Matt Martin. I think his arrival ensures that the Leafs don’t pick up an enforcer, and I think he does a world of good for the younger prospects.
But he also takes up a roster spot for a long time, and he makes a little above market value in a lineup position where most of the “modern dynasty” teams have learned to constantly rotate entry level deals. His underlying numbers aren’t anything special, and the one statistic he has an edge on is one where there’s debate over if it’s a product of quality or situation.
I think if this were a no-cap, luxury tax, or fast-rising cap league, the move is a bit more palatable to me. But it feels like the bit of positive feeling I’d have towards this move is negated by the circumstances of his contract. As I said in my much-disputed post about management uncertainty, this doesn’t feel like a move the team would have made a year ago, and it leaves me pretty curious. Maybe they feel like the team has undervalued toughness a bit, but you also wonder if Martin is worth the premium.
Overall, I think I like this move for Toronto from a hockey perspective and I’m very uncertain about it from an asset management perspective. Who knows, though; we all thought fellow hit machine Leo Komarov was paid too much, and it turned out that he was worth it and then some once his usage changed. I guess we’ll have to see how it all plays out.