My status with Matt Martin: It’s complicated

Photo Credit: Dan Hamilton/USA TODAY SPORTS

Thanks to some media scrum answers, Matt Martin the topic in everybody’s favourite hockey venue. I’m not talking about the Air Canada Centre, but the Social Media Coliseum, where we all take this very seriously and on each other’s throats. 

An easily traceable starting point for this conversation is here:

Shilton has, from what I’ve seen, seen ever-neutral in the Martin debate since he signed in July, and is one of the most level-headed of our local media, so I’m not about to flash the propaganda lamp. Her tone has become more defensive in the past few weeks, but at the same time, so has pretty much everybody’s. It’s not hard to figure out why. It’s because…

It’s Very Easy To Like Matt Martin

I’ll level with you; when I’m just sitting down and watching a game for fun, I love players like Matt Martin. Big hits are a lot of fun. A fight, when it’s not some pre-arranged crap for the sake of “shaking things up”, can be all sorts of entertaining. He’s tenacious as hell on the forecheck, and he seems to always be pissing off his opponents with his chirps. 

Then you watch a series like The Leaf or The Road To The Outdoor Classics, and you see the relationships that he’s cultivated with the players, particularly the younger ones, and you can’t help but root for that. We’re talking about a guy who at 27 is old enough to be a vet but not old enough to be a dinosaur to the rookies, and a player who dreamed of playing for this team and gets to not only relay the excitement of being here, but show it to them first hand. Combine that with the fact he’s always been near the edge of the depth chart, and you get a player who knows not to take his career for granted.

You look at stuff like that, the things that swing your emotions while watching games and the fact that this is a team with a shifting identity, and it’s nice to have another guy to shift it in a positive way. Marner spoke of their friendship to Chris Johnston today for a piece on Martin’s locker room role (which I recommend reading). 

“He’s been a lot of things to me,” said Marner. “I kind of just got to know him this year right off the start. He was one of the first guys here working out in the summertime, so I got to meet him and go out to lunch with him. And then we kind of just got going out more, and having more dinners and stuff with each other.

“I think on the road we kind of just built a good relationship from there and it’s been like that since.”

I won’t poach too much from the piece, because there’s a ton of meat in there, but the affection is clear from this group.

“He’s an unbelievable guy,” said Matthews. “He’s the kind of guy that you want on your team, obviously. He’s been around for a while. He’s a great leader on this team. He’s somebody that doesn’t have a letter, but he leads by example every day and works hard.

He’s a person you like having around your team, he’s a player that throws you back to a dwindling era of the game and is around just in case someone wants to revive that era, and in an ideal world, salaries don’t matter, roster sizes don’t matter, and you can pick and choose the games where he plays to be most convenient.

Now, on the other hand..

Salary Matters and so does Roster Composition


The above is every unrestricted free agent forward this season that got an AAV of $3.5 million or less and played 30 or more games. Specifically, it shows what they’ve contributed to the scoresheet and the flow of play this year. As you can see, Martin was one of two players in this price range to get a four-year deal; which is maybe your first warning sign that there was a degree of overcommitment.

His numbers… well, they’re bad. He’s playing less than nine minutes a night; only Jordin Tootoo, who makes $750,000, is playing less than that (as he should be; he’s been awful for Chicago). In this group of 26, he’s 19th in point productivity by rate (to give him a chance), and relative Corsi-For percentage sits at -3.63, 17th of the group. 

Now granted, he spends a lot his time with Ben Smith, but even the time he’s spent away from him hasn’t cared that much better in the long run. Six of the eight players who have spent the most time with him have fared better in terms of shot differential away from him than with him.

Then there’s the pace. Toronto, as we know, is so up-tempo that they’re redefining the term. Of the 19 players to spend at least ten minutes with him, though, the total attempts for and against drops for all but six of them; Smith, Morgan Rielly, Connor Brown, Martin Marincin, and Seth Griffith. Griffith and Smith’s gains are interesting because it seems both sides have benefited from each other, and that’s also reflected in the shot numbers, and Brown’s hints that they worked well enough as a legitimate puck-retrieval pair, but the two defencemen involved saw the increase in action come almost entirely from shots against.

Back to the UFA class, though. All of these guys are basically smoking him in the impact that they’ve had on their teams in terms of the play-generating side of the game. But even beyond that, it’s pretty interesting. You look at hits and Martin, predictably, leads there, with about 16 and a half more hits thrown than taken every hour. But Ryan White isn’t far behind, and he’s producing about as much, fighting about as much, and throwing those hits at a million bucks on a one-year. You combine giveaways and takeaways as a proxy to see often they’re interacting with the puck, and Martin is near the bottom of the list again.

You think that maybe the penalty kill helps, but Martin has seen less and less time on that unit, and, more importantly, he’s taken 11 more penalties (18) than he’s drawn (7) this year; the least disciplined on this list by an obnoxiously significant margin. If not getting burned on the penalty kill was important, even a cold-sticked Michael Grabner (who got 2 years at $1.6 million) draws more penalties than he takes, and does well at killing them (plus, you know, he’s got 21 goals this year somehow).

So that’s when you start to wonder about the fair value thing. How great does $10 million over four years look when Eric Staal, a cup winner, a long-time captain, and now once again a player on a 70 point pace signs for a year less at only a million per year more? How does it look when Tomas Vanek grabs 31 points in 34 games on a 1-year, $2.6 million dollar deal? Or when PA Parenteau ends up being one of the only bright spots on the Devils (we can laugh at the Islanders too for waiving him) for $1.25 million? Or, even if you were intent on a role player, a someone like Dominic Moore comes in under a million. Or if you wanted some fists attached, Steve Ott, Ryan White, and Chris Stewart all combine to make abut $600,000 more. Or, as I’ve argued months back, you take Rich Clune, who already helped shaped the Marlies room that half the guys graduated from, and you give him a one-year deal instead.

Or if you really, really needed some shootout help, because you’ve struggled at that lately, Brandon Pirri (who is #1 all-time at shootout percentage) was picked up for $1.1 million and will probably end up with 25+ points to go with it.

Now, the good news is, these frugal buys come every offseason. At the same time, though, you’ve locked in that roster spot, and you’ve locked in that money. If there’s a blatantly obviously player to sign come August who is waiting for a chance, but Martin, who has accomplished his mission at introducing the kids to how to grind and be a good pro, is still sitting at the fourth left wing spot, then you can’t make that move. You can try to trade him, but the market for a player like this to begin with, let alone one who seems likely to finish with career lows in points, is dwindling. You can waive him, but if he clears, not enough of that salary gets buried to save too much. You can really hope Las Vegas takes him in June, but I can’t imagine he’ll even be the best forward Toronto exposes. You limit your ability to make that 2% leap, which could make a difference in the end.

What It Comes Down To

Really, the Martin situation doesn’t come down to knocking him as a player. We knew what he was; a player who can establish a strong forecheck, who slows down the pace of the game to kill time for his teammates to rest and reload, who can throw the mitts if he needs to, and, while he doesn’t produce much, he can shoot better than your average stereotypical goon.

You can’t really knock him as a person, because clearly he’s well liked by his teammates and by his staff, he seems to be a good citizen of the community, and he’s genuinely super stoked and happy to be here, a quality I always want out of a player. There’s a lot of value in that. I genuinely believe that things like morale matter.

I also think that, while he objectively hasn’t done that much “protection” with his fists this year, and while he’s not on the ice enough to directly intimidate, the old-school train of thought is still ingrained enough in the hockey communities minds that he probably is spilling a bit of confidence into his teammates and a bit of second guessing from the opposition, even if subconscious. That is absolutely going to change, and probably sooner than traditionalists would like to admit, but there’s a little bit of juice left in that lemon.

From a team builder’s perspective, however, you have to have the following questions:

  • Given that the objective numbers indicate a replacement level player, do you believe that subconscious element will spill over into $1-1.5 million in increased performance to the players surrounding him?
  • Could a cheaper player give you a similar subconscious impact?
  • How much of a positive mentorship impact does he continue to make over each successive year? If he’s taught his proverbial students to be the teachers, is there a point where they could have taken care of it themselves?
  • Does this entire package have the same goal value on the ice as a similarly priced player who would’ve produced a higher total of goals through their physical talents?
  • Are you willing to commit to running a play style that’s different from the rest of your lines on this player’s line for the duration of their deal? If not, can the player be made to work around it?
  • How certain are you that you don’t have a player in your development pipeline that could take up that roster spot before the end of the deal?
  • How certain are you that you won’t be in a position where, if you spend to above the player’s cap worth to acquire the player, that you won’t need that extra space for the duration?
  • In a case like this, where your goal is to be “slapped around” less, as Babcock refers to, how much of that can be negated by simply being the better team and causing the opponents to focus on trying to catch up?

When you run all that through your mind, it makes it hard to be sold on the commitment. That’s not so much on him, but on management’s initial commitment in July. Keeping in mind that I’ve been more optimistic about the team’s timeline to reach success than most, it seemed particularly odd to commit four years to a mentorship player on a team that didn’t quite match his play style, even if it could’ve stood to learn some of his qualities. The team isn’t quite at the point where that cap hit matters too much, but if we’re talking about re-upping restricted free agents and taking runs at star defencemen, a wealth of space can still go away pretty quickly. If this team is as close to a cup window as they appear to be, they should be pushing to towards the ceiling in the most efficient way possible in those years, and while a million and a half dollars won’t mess the whole project up by any means, it’ll make things trickier.

In a weird way, I don’t think I would’ve even blinked if he got the exact same amount of money in a two or even one-year deal. League max this season to be the team’s fisted professor? Fantastic. But the term is an awkward fit, and with his individual performance numbers already starting to dip, I can’t imagine they’re getting much out of this whole arrangement in years three or four.

But I keep going back to the beginning. I can’t blame the players for liking him; they should. I can’t blame the coaching staff for liking him; they should want a bit more out of him, but I totally get why they like him. I can’t blame the fans for liking him; he’s the type of guy that all the prior “good” Leafs teams always had at least one of and if your view of hockey is still nostalgic rather than future-thinking (which is common and perfectly normal and fine for a fan), then you’re I can’t blame you for liking him. You should like him. We should all like him. Hell, I do like him.

That’s what makes it all so difficult. He’s a David Clarkson-lite in more ways than one; from his desire to be here, to what he wants to, tries to, and does bring to the team, to the fact that his only real sin here is that he’s not that great and that his bosses trusted him a bunch. You’re more concerned with their choice than you are with the player, but they get dragged in. Thankfully, his contract is just “fine but too long” rather than arguably the worst in the history of hockey, so your everyday fan doesn’t get sucked into that debate. 

But hey, this team also managed to find a way to parachute away from Clarkson, and they (under many regimes) found ways to get away from Dion Phaneuf, Jason Blake, Joffrey Lupul (sort of), and many other iffy pen-to-paper decisions. Besides, I can’t imagine that after this year, they’ll conclude that they need another one of these signings, especially given what has blossomed already and what is coming through the pipeline.

I guess that’s where I stand; liking what they’ve got, but not how they got it. Believing that he was simultaneously a bad signing and a good acquisition. I doubt I’ll come around to ever believing that the length of commitment was sensible, but until someone better, faster, and cheaper comes around, I’m still content with what Martin, the player and the person brings to the organization. Because, at the end of the day, it’s hard not to root for him.

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  • Glen

    I enjoy this writers work and respect his opinion, however I find his analysis very lopsided. Analytics are a tool but they don’t tell the whole story. A perfect example of that was the Rangers game where the Leafs had good numbers but were not in the game from start to finish. To have a good team you need to have a lot of intangibles and Martins score on this front would be high.

    • tealeaves

      That is the biggest thing the analytic bloggers like PPP, leafsnation, theathletic etc are missing about hockey. Babcock, Lou and smart hockey minds will consider analytics as well as intangibles when icing a team. This is why for example griffiths and Corrado who both are darlings of the fancy stat world reside in the AHL or press box.

  • Ben

    One thing, check out the TOI/game column. Basically none of these guys are playing a restricted 4th line role. So, if we’d signed one of these players and played them as they’ve been played to get these results, they’d probably be taking a kid’s spot on wing.

    Do you really want any of these FAs lacing it up for us instead of, say, Brown?

    And his deal is structured to be much more tradeable in years 3-4, if you were curious.

  • leafdreamer

    Why don’t you just come out and say where you really stand – you don’t actually like Martin – you hate him in fact and you believe that he shouldn’t play hockey. What’s with all this crap about how Vanek or Staal would be better? Of course they’d be better, but would they sign here? And even if they did, you’d still need a Martin to protect them. You must really hate it when Babs talks about ‘good men’ – intangible if there ever was one.

  • Stan Smith

    Just like I have said about players like Polak, you cannot use offense/defense defined metrics to measure a player like Matt Martin. He is on the team for a specific reason, and he fills the role he was brought in to perform. The same people that complained when players like Colton Orr were taking up a roster spot, were saying if a team feels there is a need for a player of that ilk, it needs to be someone that can play at least 10 minutes a game. Well here he is, and now they are complaining again.

    Is he overpaid? Undoubtedly. Can you say “Free Agent”? Most valuable free agents are overpaid. They get overpaid when multiple teams are bidding for their services, and I am sure if the Leafs had to fork out what they did, it is obvious someone else valued what he brought to the table.

    The fact that he also appears to be a leader in the dressing room is either a bonus, or the Leafs new of that as well.

    I myself personally have been a little underwhelmed by his play to this point. I’m not talking about anything offense wise. I just expected a little more “energy” out of him, maybe a little more “Eddie Shack”. He has been much quieter than I expected, but surprisingly enough the other teams haven’t really tried to take too many liberties with the young players. It will be interesting to see if that happens what the reaction will be,

    • Kanuunankuula

      Besides the over-payment, it’s also the term. It’s easier to swallow over-payment when it’s just 1 or 2 years. As to being coveted, let’s not kid ourselves to thinking Martin is somehow a very unique player. This type is the most common player available.

  • joekool

    This is almost a Master’s thesis, so much analysis, while not adding much of anything new to the topic at hand. Don’t know if you have a PhD Jeff, but this is a start. I think Martin’s value can be summed up in a word or two – he’s a big component of the glue that brings/holds this team together. Every good team has one or two of these guys, guys who have enormous heart, spirit and toughness, guys who never quit, who play as hard as they can all the time. Leadership in other words. The Greeks used to say to their warriors going into battle ‘Come back with your shield or upon it’, meaning fight hard and win, or if you die in battle, die with honour.. I think Martin would skate, and hit, and fight, and lead this team until they had to drag him off the ice.

  • Eric Wong

    I can say from personal experience from actually playing hockey that having a guy like Martin on your side is much, much better than not, especially if there’s a guy like Martin on the other side.

    And in the 9 minutes of ice time he’s leading the league in hits, which, again, anyone who has actually played hockey can attest to, makes a difference. After being stapled to the boards a couple of times, D-men tend to make quicker/more reactive plays and cough up pucks, if Martin’s out there or not because if your ribs have been softened a bit even a guy like Marner can make them hurt more.

  • It seems like there’s too much of a knock against term for bottom six guys. The first thing I thought when I heard Ganger was signed for under a million was it was a truly huge miss that someone didn’t consider paying him more to get an underrated player for several seasons.

    Getting guys for 3-4 seasons, or even more, would make GMs look at their career instead of trying to buy a season or two of a guy who more likely got some luck than broke out. If they aren’t a once in a long while buy-low guy like Ganger you should look to get years of solid depth at a lower price in exchange for contract certainty for someone who’s wondering if they’ll play in the NHL three years from now as well as what they’re getting paid next season.

    The downside to Martin’s contract isn’t term – it’s either term or AAV. At 27 he could be worth a 5-6 year signing even if grinding wears him down more than typical if that contract is below his one-year value, as it should for a length of contract a depth guy wouldn’t normally look for.

    People are looking not to get burned on a commitment to a bottom six player when what they should be looking for are reverse mini-Clarksons because nobody else is.

  • Leafy McLeafster

    I can’t see it from watching the games, but if Mike Babcock says that we aren’t getting pushed around this year because of Martin then im going with that. Theres a hell of a lot that goes on on the ice that doesn’t come across on the broadcast. We’ve got a lot of rookies on the team, Martin will be good to have until Auston and the Goat are a lil older and stronger, plus he’s just a great dude

  • DukesRocks

    Another long winded article about Matt Martin, where our buddy Jeff obviously has misgiving about his contract. I wonder how much the NYI’s miss Martin being in last place? Did Martin really make that much of a difference to the NYI? What I know is this, the Leaf’s are fighting for a playoff spot and Martin is a respected leader on the team.

  • LukeDaDrifter

    Jeff was wrong about Hunwick.

    He was wrong about Andersen. (too much term for an unproven goalie)

    He was wrong about Polak.

    He is wrong about Martin.

    Who is next on his list?