My status with Matt Martin: It’s complicated

Updated: January 11, 2018 at 1:00 am by Jeff Veillette

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.