Almost sixteen days until the trade deadline, so you better enjoy these last 16 days of Paul Martin's Penguins career HAW HAW HAW OK, not really…but there's more after the jump.
THE PAUL MARTIN CONUNDRUM
Paul Martin's 79 blocked shots lead the Pens and place him just out of the top 60 among NHL defensemen.
Sports fans by nature are irrational to at least some degree. Individually, we are all invested emotionally in our sport and our team. We learn to cheer for the jersey but we all have players we like more than others, sometimes for ridiculous reasons. Ask any fan to name their favorite player to ever wear their team's jersey and you'll get a definitive answer. Ask that same fan to name their LEAST favorite player to ever wear their team's jersey and you'll get an equally quick, equally definitive answer.
If fans are microcosms of the much larger fan base, then we see the same sorts of things on a larger level. Over the course of each season, some players emerge as favorites of the fan base. Conversely, from every season emerges another nearly-universal "Whipping Boy" or two, or 23 if you're the Blue Jackets.
Why don't you just kick my dog while you're here?
Every player at some point is subjected to some sort of criticism by his own fans of his play, and even the best players go through stretches of substandard play. What makes "The Whipping Boy" seems more rooted combination of struggling play relative to expectations and/or salary. And it can shift from year to year, as we've seen in the cases of Gonchar, Fleury, James Neal and maybe even Evgeni Malkin. Then again, fair or not, some players never seem to escape it – for example, Ryan Whitney and to a lesser degree Alex Goligoski.
This year, I suppose we can welcome Paul Martin to the club.
(Sidenote: Whitney. Goligoski. Martin. What the hell does our fan base have against American-born, offensively-oriented, left-handed defensemen?)
(That's a joke, by the way.)
(Second sidenote: We're dealing in generalizations here. Not every fan has bashed Martin or Whitney or any of the other aforementioned names. Again, generalizations.)
The Pens brought Martin aboard to play top-four minutes on defense and he's certainly done that, to the tune of 24 minutes per night this season. He doesn't have the shot from the point to replace what Gonch did, but he is a good puck-mover. Like Gonchar, he's also had a reputation as a guy who could skate the puck out of the zone or boost the transition game with a solid first pass. He was never much of a physical presence, but relied instead on his mobility and awareness in the defensive zone to compensate.
Martin's five-year, $25 million deal was the going rate for a top-four defenseman, but it still brought high expectations. To that end, Martin has struggled this year, perhaps even regressing from last season. His 23 giveaways aren't horrible by NHL standards; there are nearly 100 defensemen across the league with more. Martin, however, seems especially prone to rushing a pass or mishandling a puck when pressured. Those sorts of problems – especially the hurried passes that often result in turnovers – are reminiscent of the same sorts of puck management issues that plagued Ryan Whitney. And for some reason, Martin's turnovers seem to end up with the puck behind Fleury with annoying frequency.
On defense, Martin has found himself out of position more often than you'd like to see from a player with a reputation for sound positional defense. While he was never going to knock guys off the puck regularly, he seems hesitant to engage puck carriers deep in the defensive zone even with a stick check or board pressure. That's essential, as Bylsma's system is predicated on winning puck battles, gaining possession and moving it quickly out of the defensive zone. If teams can routinely get the puck deep and keep it there, it makes it all the more difficult for the Pens to "get to their game."
Martin may just be going through a slump. Some of the problems he's had this year scream "thinking too much" and "not making simple reads."
At worst, though, his struggles this year may be indicative of a player who is a bad fit for this system. It also happens. During his last couple of years in New Jersey, Martin was often paired with Bryce Salvador & Johnny Oduya. Salvador is very much a physical, stay-at-home defenseman; Oduya is a steady presence in his own zone thanks to very underrated smarts and skating.
Martin played in a system in New Jersey that was not as aggressive and did not emphasize pushing the puck as much as this one does in Pittsburgh. This may prove to be too much of an adjustment; not every player is cut out to play Bylsma's system.
The Pens already had a decent amount of depth on defense in the system when they signed Martin and Zbynek Michalek in the summer of 2010. Given that the next three summers will conceivably bring extensions for Sid, Geno, Staal, Letang and Fleury, chances were good that at least one of the Martin-Michalek duo would've been moved before the end of their respective deals. Oh, and that was before James Neal was even in the picture.
The accelerated development of Simon Despres may have moved that timeline up even more. But let's take the advice of The Wolf from Pulp Fiction for a second here. It remains to be seen whether Despres's knee injury set his game back at all, to say nothing of the fact that he's probably not completely ready for an elevated role this year. Moving Martin means giving Niskanen an extra five or six minutes a night, or bringing in someone from the outside.
Shero has some decisions to make. Chances are, he's probably ten steps ahead of this discussion right now.
Big stretch of games coming up over the next few weeks, as the Pens play a number of teams out of current playoff standings. Time to solidify the playoff standing.