Last year, in late-September, I wrote a blog titled “In Defense of Matt Niskanen,” after the Penguins newly acquired young defenseman, Matt Niskanen, instantly became a lightning rod for criticism after a short stint in Pittsburgh. This time, it’s a much different situation, and one that requires a lot more attention, as its at a much higher price tag and role. Paul Martin was heralded as a major free agent signing in 2010 around the NHL and throughout the media and fan base after the Penguins exited early from the playoffs and lost veteran offensive defenseman Sergei Gonchar to the Ottawa Senators in free agency. Unfortunately, Paul Martin spent most of last season receiving criticism from both the media and the fans as an “overpriced underachiever.” In looking at his career so far, and other factors, this writer believes it is far too early to write off Martin’s importance to the Penguins blueline over the remaining three years of his contract.

A Brief History of Paul Martin

When GM Ray Shero signed defenseman Paul Martin on July 1st, many Penguins fans were familiar with the former Devil, but the 31 year old, drafted 62nd overall in 2000 has proven to be a bit of a conundrum during his two years in black and Vegas gold. Prior to his signing with the Penguins in 2010, Martin spent 6 seasons playing for the division rival New Jersey Devils, racking up 26 goals and 137 assists for a total of 163 points, while earning a career plus/minus of +55. In 2006 and 2010, Martin was named to the United States Olympic hockey team, but did not see any playing time in 2006 and was injured in 2010. In 2008, Paul Martin was also named to the United States World Championship team, scoring 8 points (1 goal, 7 assists) in 7 games. Prior to signing with the Penguins, Paul Martin was the Devils leading point-scoring defenseman since the lockout and had a cap hit of approximately 3.83 million per year.

From NBC sports:

“So now the Penguins have signed two of the top four defensemen on the open market today, and they have definitely upgraded on the blueline now.

It doesn’t even really depend on exactly what the financials for Martin are, as at his age his of much better long-term value than Gonchar. The Penguins have improved on defense and will once again be a dangerous team next season. The Penguins will be a bit tight against the cap again, but it looks like they have their team for season just about ready to go.”

Getting to his game in Pittsburgh

After an early exit in the 2nd round of the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens, GM Ray Shero sought to fix what appeared to be the biggest deficit in the Penguins system; Defense. With the signing of Paul Martin and Zybnek Michalek, previously of the Phoenix Coyotoes, the Penguins appeared to have the team to beat heading into the 2010-2011 NHL season. Michalek and Martin both came from systems that relied heavily on defensive responsibility from both a system and every player on the ice. Although Michalek was brought on primarily for his shot-blocking and defensive positioning capabilities, Martin was signed to help replace some of the intangibles lost after Sergei Gonchar was signed by the Ottawa Senators for a hefty sum of 5.5 million per year over a 3 year term, even though Gonchar was significantly older and was not known for strong defensive play, but had considerably better offensive upside. When the Penguins signed Paul Martin, the expectation was that he was not supposed to be a replica of the recently departed Gonchar, but that he was expected to be a solid defender, with strong puck-moving capabilities, which better fit the system the coach Dan Bylsma was fine-tuning after the playoff loss.

In the 2010-2011, a season that would include a Winter Classic played in Heinz Field between the Penguins and the hated Washington Capitals, would be marred by the loss of Jordan Staal to start the season, as well as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin throughout significant portions of the season. In addition to the big-3 missing games due to injury, the Penguins saw injuries to many of their forwards and other defenseman, but managed to pull off one of the more impressive regular seasons in franchise history, resulting in coach Bylsma winning the Jack Adams for coach of the year. The steady second-pairing of Martin and Michalek were attributed with allowing the Penguins to change systems from the typical upbeat offensive style hammering away at other teams defenses with unparalleled depth at center to a system focused on puck control and smothering other teams offenses. For Martin, the new defensive system in Pittsburgh allowed him to settle into his role without forcing him to be a considerably different player than he had previously in his career with the Devils.

After spending most of the 2010-2011 shorthanded on offensive firepower, the Penguins met with the Tampa Bay Lightning, a Guy Boucher led team with a likewise smothering defensive system. Although the Penguins played a close series, they did not have the offensive firepower without Crosby and Malkin in the lineup, and could not match the offensive bursts of the Lightning, even though the defense still provided solid play throughout the series. Paul Martin and Zybnek Michalek provide a steady influence on the defense squad throughout the series, but as expected, they rarely contributed on the scoreboard. Throughout the entire 2010-2011 regular season and playoffs, Paul Martin played his role exactly as expected and provided not only sound defensive positioning, but was also an integral piece of the defense dedicated to quickly moving the puck out of the defensive zone, helping creating chances for the depleted forward corps.

Now for Something Completely Different

The 2011-2012 campaign may have not been Martin’s best season defensively, or offensively for that matter, but he still finished with a similar stat line to past years of his career. Martin finished the season with 2 goals, 25 assists, and a plus-9, but was constantly plagued by bad on-ice performance with the puck in the defensive zone. In the first 3 games of the playoff series against the Philadelphia Flyers, Martin was consistently found out of position and making poor decisions with the puck. Shortly after the conclusion of the third game, Martin informed Penguins trainers that during the first three games of the series that he had experienced concussion symptoms and was immediately removed from the lineup for the rest of the series. During the series, Martin was not the only Penguins’ defenseman to make a series of mental mistakes, young defenseman Ben Lovejoy among most of the defensive corps made several costly turnovers in the neutral and defensive zones that led to goals
by the Flyers.

Throughout the season, many critics had seen a similar pattern developing with Martin, citing that his salary dictates that a higher-level of expectations is warranted. There was no simple answer for what was the cause of Martin’s self-admitted disappointing season, but everything from poor focus, to a less rigid system, injuries, and/or a lack of cohesion with his defensive partners could have added to problem.

To Amnesty Buyout or to not Amnesty Buyout?

With the rumors floating around regarding the potential of the NHL providing teams with the possibility to buyout up to two players without penalty, Paul Martin’s name has become the favorite on tongues of many Penguins fans for use with this provision. Even with a smaller cap to start the 2013-2014 season, Paul Martin’s salary is not as outrageous as many will have you believe. With a renewed sense of “something to prove,” Martin will be looking to return with a vengeance, during a shortened season, which might prove helpful to prevent veterans with high average ice-times from tiring out to soon. Paul Martin will not score 50 points or lead the Penguins powerplay from the point, but he will continue to contribute solid production and leadership both on and off the ice. I believe that Paul Martin will have a season that will remind many Penguins fans why he was such a sought after commodity in the 2010 free agency market.