Originally published in 2016, this article was republished in May, 2020 as part of our Retro May look back at our work over the years. We know now that Kyle Dubas shipped Martin back to Long Island and escaped the worst of this contract, but hindsight shouldn’t overwhelm how it seemed at the time.
On Friday, the Leafs signed unrestricted free agent LW Matt Martin to a four-year deal with an average annual value of $2,500,000. It was stupid.
A Preliminary Note: Why Don't We Just Wait And See
Matt Martin has played full or nearly full NHL seasons for the past six years. He is 27 years old. He is not a draft pick from a league we do not have substantial data for and he is not on the ascending part of his development curve. He is highly unlikely to get significantly better than he has been. We can look at his past and draw reasonable conclusions. So let’s do that. If we had no problem saying that trading Dion Phaneuf was a good decision a nanosecond after it happened, we can do the same here.
What Matt Martin Is
Matt Martin, up to this point, has played his whole career with the New York Islanders. By his standards, he’s coming off a banner year offensively; his 10 goals, 9 assists and 19 points were all career highs. By 5v5 P/60, he was 273rd among NHL forwards who played at least ten games, but this too was higher than usual; the seasons before he was 371st and 376th, respectively. His recent boost—not surprisingly—coincided with Martin having the highest shooting percentage of his career (11.6% compared to his career average of 7.5%.) At generating shot attempts for, Martin is consistently abysmal. It’s not like he has played with offensive stalwarts — the vast, vast majority of his minutes have been with fellow Islander fourth-liners Cal Clutterbuck and Casey Cizikas (who received a garbage contract of his own this summer). Then again, there’s a likely reason behind that. He’s never really shown offensive ability that would justify moving him up the lineup. In other words, Matt Martin on his best day is a fourth-line forward offensively, and he has at times bordered on not being even that.
Defensively, things are a bit better. Matt Martin has an interesting knack for shot suppression--his one talent that both analytic and non-analytic hockey watchers can agree is useful. Martin played an extremely low-event brand of hockey. Essentially, he makes your team better defensively, and worse offensively by a relatively similar amount -- amounting to treading water, which is perfectly fine for a depth player. It's basically impossible to read anything into his individual WOWYs, given the tiny minute samples he has away from Clutterbuck and Cizikas, and the small minute samples they have away from him.
This is the best argument for Matt Martin the player. He can play depth minutes and not get buried. He will slow the game down and make it more low-event; he's a human fast-forward button. When Matt Martin is on, your team will achieve nothing offensively and the opposition will achieve little. All that happens is that the clock keeps ticking.
We’ve seen lots of discussion among Leafs fans about his shot suppression. Keep in mind, though, that given how terrible he is at getting shot attempts for his team, his Corsi differential still isn’t great. He’s been a negative relative shot attempt player in each of the last three seasons, though in 2015/2016, he was close to even. Further, Matt Martin has not served as a penalty killer the last two seasons, averaging a measly 0:02 seconds of shorthanded TOI/G. Even if you go back to the time he was a semi-regular on the Isles’ second PK unit (2012-13), he was outstripped in 4v5 Corsi differential by such stalwarts as Cizikas and Michael Grabner. The idea of Martin the shothanded hero seems to be based on the idea that since he’s good at reducing Corsi against, he must be good at killing penalties too. There’s just no evidence to support it.
Falling in love with Martin's shot suppression based on that one happy bar in his HERO chart is short-sighted. It doesn't make him into a magical defensive force. All it does it make him capable of playing a fourth-line shift.
There's another thing about MM, though. Martin also checks all the old-school boxes--perhaps more than any other active NHL player. He is 6'3" and 220 lbs, and he fights a lot; Martin had 11 fighting majors last season, tied for second in the NHL. On the physicality front, Martin has led the league in hits in each of the last five (!) seasons. Even with all the usual hedging about hits being a very inconsistently tracked stat, Martin sure seems like he bashes everything that moves.
To sum up:
a) Martin has virtually no offensive value.
b) Martin has a respectable ability to cut down on shot attempts against.
c) Martin is extremely physical.
This doesn't sound that bad. While he's not the stuff that dreams are made of, Matt Martin is an NHL player. A decent team can (and just decided to) have him as their twelfth forward.
The Contract Is Stupid
The problem is that we didn’t sign him to a twelfth-forward contract. We signed him for four years at $2.5M. It is very easy to sign guys who have a more positive possession impact, some level of offensive capacity, or both for less money and a single-year contract, as the Leafs have done repeatedly in recent seasons—look at Boyes and Parenteau this past year, to pick two examples. Martin is a good shot-suppressor, but he’s not the only good defensive player on the market. Jonathan Marchessault has a similar level of defensive ability, but has a history of having a positive effect on offense as well. He signed for two years at $1.5M. Total.
The only argument for Matt Martin being worth that money is that you think his hitting and fighting justifies it. If Martin’s hitting is part of his ability to suppress shots against—which would make sense—that’s already accounted for in his numbers; remember that his Corsi differential is ultimately still not that great, because he can’t generate shot attempts worth a damn. So you’re relying on the—yes, we’re here again—intangible value of his physical play. In exchange for that, lower the Leafs’ salary cap by $1.5M for the next four years, and think about the impact that might have—in a bidding war for a UFA better than Matt Martin, or in the second contracts for Nylander, Marner and Mathews (all of whom will likely be done their ELCs before Matt Martin’s contract ends.) For all the time fans spend quibbling over the amounts given to stars—Stamkos at $10M is too much! Kessel at $8M is overpaid!—there’s an odd acceptance of giving a depth forward with one useful skill a deal that is totally unnecessary. If you cut down on the deals you hand out to the Matt Martins of the world, you have more money for those stars without having a worse team.
The second issue is the risk associated with signing players to long-term deals. Matt Martin is a fourth-line forward right this instant. He has, thus far, been reasonably healthy, but should he age quickly or experience injury trouble thanks to his style of play, it would not take much decline for him to reach healthy scratch territory. If this was the price necessary to bring Martin in, we have to ask ourselves why the Leafs were in a bidding war for a low-end forward at all. The fact that they won it seems primed to be a textbook example of the Winner's Curse.
Is it a calamity? No. It's just an unforced error.
Travis Yost recently had an article on the problems with the Columbus Blue Jackets, and how they tended to overpay in response to hot streaks. As those overpayments add up, the team can wind up in a catastrophic cap situation without necessarily making one big mistake, suffering a death by a thousand self-inflicted cuts. This was a cut, like the retained salary in the Phil Kessel trade was a cut, like the Tim Gleason buyout was a cut, like the Carl Gunnarsson retention was a cut, like—Jesus, there have been so many of these.
Maybe the most desperate response to the Martin deal has been that it’s not the David Clarkson contract. This is true. The Clarkson contract is very likely the worst free agent deal signed since the last lockout. The Matt Martin deal is much better than that. But it’s a major commitment to a guy who, no matter how you dress him up, is at best a fourth-line player with one above-average skill, and it seems very likely that the Leafs overvalued his physical presence in making it. Given the subsequent reacquisition of Roman Polak, this only feels more likely.
The Martin deal doesn't wipe out a year of mostly progressive, smart decisions. But it was a mistake, and it may show that the Leaf's new front office has more in common with the old one than we want to believe.