By John Toperzer
There once was a time when a majority of fans in Pittsburgh clamored for the Pens to move Paul Martin at any cost, to put him on the first Ron Burkle-chartered jet headed anywhere but Consol Energy Center. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I believed a similar action was needed.
General manager Ray Shero sat down with Martin during the summer of 2012 and asked the beleaguered blueliner if he wanted out, just two seasons into a five-year, $25 million contract.
“I asked him if he wanted a trade,” Shero told ESPN.com. “He was embarrassed by his year. He said, ‘I do not want to be traded. I came here for a reason, and you signed me for a reason. If I do come back, you’re going to see a different player.'”
Pittsburgh dealt fellow defender, Zbynek Michalek, at the 2012 draft and held onto Martin. The chain of events have worked out well for both Martin and the Penguins, to the point where the one year left on Martin’s contract at $5 million looks like a steal.
Fast forward to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. Ukraine was still a sovereign nation and Martin’s wrist was still intact. At some point during the games, the defenseman’s hand was broken. He would miss the Penguins’ next 18 games. Meanwhile, the Russians would invade Ukraine, but that’s a whole ‘nother story for another time.
Martin compiled 15 points (3G, 12A) in 39 regular-season games after totaling six goals and 23 points in 34 games the prior year.
Which makes what the Minnesota native is doing right now even more remarkable.
Martin is leading the NHL in postseason scoring with eight assists, including three on the power play and two short-handed.
Keep in mind, there is a difference between the eye test and numbers on paper.
He’s missed the net on multiple occasions despite open looks at the goalie from the slot. In fact, the defender has registered six shots, missed the net six times and had six other attempts blocked.
On the other hand, Martin’s one-touch takeaway at the Pittsburgh blue line sparked Brandon Sutter on his short-handed break with the Pens down, 3-1, in the third period of Game 3 – leading to unexpected victory.
Defensively, Martin has blocked a team-leading 15 shots, good for fifth overall heading into Friday night’s play.
Never a physical player, he has dished out one hit in four games while being on the receiving end 23 times. His minus-22 hit differential is worst among all players in the postseason.
But perhaps most importantly, what he means to the Penguins is stability. He leads the team in ice time (27:56 TOI) by a wide margin – up from 24:34 in the regular season.
His presence at the point on the power play also limits the Blue Jackets’ short-handed chances and he has an otherwise calming effect in contrast to say, Kris Letang. His ability to make quick decisions and move the puck up-ice is underrated.
It’s doubtful Martin will lead these playoffs much longer in scoring. Forwards like Patrick Marleau, Nathan MacKinnon and Paul Stastny all trail by just one point.
No one around the league would’ve been surprised if he or she was told a Penguins player would lead the league in offensive production two weeks into the postseason. Of course, that person would likely have thought the player to be Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin or perhaps even James Neal or Chris Kunitz.
It’s easy to say that Pittsburgh has underachieved thus far against a team it finished 16 points ahead of in the regular season. By the same token, it’s scary to think just where the Penguins would be without Paul Martin in the lineup right now.
The Game 5 puck drops Saturday at Consol Energy Center, 7:05 ET.