Every week of the 2018-19 season, our Rob Taub will discuss one player from the Islanders to look out for. Whether it’s past performances, certain matchups, or something about that player that makes worth spotlighting, each article will describe why they are being featured. Also — if one or two players, or the team is coming off a good week — there will be multiple spotlights.
On the day that Lou Lamoriello was called upon to take over the New York Islanders nine months ago, he talked about restoring pride in the franchise.
That pride — not just associated with the days where the Isles were a dynasty, but the years thereafter where the team was still a scary bunch — had been lost the past few years. Mainly due in part to Matt Martin, the heart and soul of the club for nearly half of this decade.
Martin, 29, was drafted by the Islanders in the fifth round of the 2008 entry draft. The Windsor, ON native made his NHL debut with the Isles in 2009-10 and was a regular shortly the year after. From 2010 to 2016, Martin became a fan favorite and quintessential resident enforcer. His long locks, hard body checks, mindset to drop the gloves to defend his teammates, were all things Islander fans came to adore.
Before he departed for the Toronto Maple Leafs on the first day of free agency in July 2016, Martin had gained national acclaim for his work on the fourth line with linemates Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck. For two seasons — 2014-15 and 2015-16 — his line was dubbed “The Best Fourth Line Ever in Hockey”.
That trio earned that nickname for their crash-and-bang style of play that would give the Islanders an edge at both ends of the ice. Offensively being a part of that threesome, Martin produced the best numbers of his career — eight goals, 14 points in 14-15, ten goals, 19 points in 15-16. The line also played a pivotal role in the Islanders finally ending their 23-year drought of not winning a playoff series.
After the Isles were bounced by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round in the 2016 playoffs, uncertainty began to set in as to whether Martin would re-sign. Through his time on Long Island, Martin not only became a quintessential figure in the organization, but had became royalty around these parts as the long-time boyfriend of Sydney Esiason, the daughter of former Jets QB and lifelong Rangers fan, Boomer Esiason.
The day that Martin left for the Leafs after signing a four-year, $10 million contract, a void was felt among the Isles faithful. One of their own, who they saw grow up before their very eyes, would be wearing another sweater.
In the two years Martin was gone, it was crystal clear that the Islanders missed his presence. The Isles lacked toughness and became soft, a far cry from just a few years prior where the lineup top to bottom played with a more hard-nosed mentality. On the other side, Martin — after playing protector Toronto’s young kids his first season — quickly fell out of flavor last year with head coach Mike Babcock. He became such a non-factor that the Leafs seemed to be shopping him before the trade deadline. Some rumors out there had a possible reunion between Martin and the Isles, but it never came to fruition.
Then July rolled around and no longer was Garth Snow calling the shots in the organization. No it was Lamoriello, who not only saw Martin as a valuable asset, but was the one that signed him two years prior to help re-establish the Leafs identity. It made all the sense in the world for Lamoriello, who just saw superstar and face of the franchise John Tavares bolt for Toronto, to bring back Martin into the fold to try to soften the blow and bring back someone the fans loved.
Martin was re-acquired by the Isles on July 3 from the Leafs. He himself was overjoyed to be back in a place he called home.
“Coming back to the Islanders is exciting for me,” Martin told Newsday that day. “In my heart, I was hoping for this. To get another opportunity with this team is unbelievable for me. I bleed orange, white and blue.”
And to the delight of the fans and teammates, having Martin back meant the best fourth line ever would be reunited.
When the season got underway, it didn’t take long for Martin and his old running mates to show they hadn’t lost a step.
Martin scored in his third game back to help ensure a 4-0 victory. He would score again a few games later in Los Angeles, where his unit ran over the the Kings in a 7-2 rout. To this point of the season, Martin nearly every time he’s been on the ice has been effective. The fourth liner has only taken 26 shots all season, yet has scored on five of them — already surpassing his total from last year and tying his mark from two seasons ago.
Those five goals and eight points might not seem like much, but those goals have come exactly when the team needed them the most. His goal in Detroit — after captain Anders Lee got hit hard — was the game winner in the Isles 3-2 comeback win. And even this past weekend with the Islanders barely getting any offense going, scored the first of four answered goals in a 4-2 victory, the team’s six straight win.
— Eyes on Isles (@eyesonislesFS) December 9, 2018
“We’re not going to be flashy on offense, but we’re going to be responsible. It’s been as fun a year as I’ve had — just going out there and every shift is important,” Martin said to The Athletic. ‘Every player has to have a role.’ You have to have significant opportunity to feel a part of it all.”
As the Islanders hit the midpoint of the season tomorrow night, Martin has brought everything that was missing that the team lacked in his absence. He’s bought in to the identity that Lamoriello and head coach Barry Trotz have been preaching since he returned. The argument can be made that he’s even extended it in some way.
Martin might not be the best player on the ice, but he’s the guy that the Islanders needed on a team that was looking for an opportunity to re-energize his career, but also proving the doubters wrong. Many were looking the other way when Lou traded for Martin, but if the Islanders make the postseason (don’t look now, it could be a real possibility), that move could go down as one of key moves that brought the Islanders back to life.
Cal Clutterbuck said it best when talking about Martin:
“His attitude is very positive. Even if there’s some of that going on in his head, he’d never let you know. But Marty’s attitude … He’s just Marty.”
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