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A Sizable Advantage

by Dyan LeBourdais / New York Islanders
When you watch a hockey game and admire the athletes who pour their blood, sweat and tears into the game, you often think about the road it took them to get where they are, playing in the best league in the world. For some players, their skating is what got them noticed, while others it was their ability to score goals. But for some players, like Islanders power forward Matt Martin, it was his ability to use his size to his advantage. Martin's been able to translate his size into becoming an agitator who has the confidence to fight and also powering through defensemen to score the dirty goals around the net. Those tools are exactly what got the winger noticed.

"In a hockey game, if we beat the other team’s top players, or all players for that matter, eventually it wears them down. We're expected to go out there, create some energy and bring some big hits. Matt is excellent at that. He’s probably the best on the team in that area.”

Michael Sauer #38 of the New York Rangers fights with Matt Martin #17 of the New York Islanders at the Nassau Coliseum on December 2, 2010 in Uniondale, New York. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
And that’s exactly what Islanders management has always liked about Martin.

“He’s not afraid of confrontation and engaging with anyone when the time comes, but the one thing that I like about Martin’s hits are that he’s not really taking himself out of position to make them,” Islanders interim head coach Jack Capuano said. “There are a lot of times where it’s stick on puck, where he’s taking the body. He has good separation and he’s able to get the puck back with his hits.”

This season, Martin has recorded the most hits on the Islanders roster with 81 in 17 games. With that statistic, he ranks seventh amongst all players in the National Hockey League.

“That’s one of my biggest attributes as a player, is my physical play,” Martin said. “I get in on the forecheck, bang some bodies and try and create turnovers, let the defensemen know I’m there and create room for my linemates. I just try to go out there and make an impact any way I can.”

Well, that’s exactly the type of player Martin has always been. In his first two years with the Sarnia Sting of the Ontario Hockey League, Martin’s job was to protect current Tampa Bay Lightning superstar Steven Stamkos.

Like all young prospects, when Martin was selected by the Islanders in the fifth round (148 overall) of the 2008 Entry Draft, he came to rookie camp with excitement and an eagerness to impress the coaches, get the opportunity to go to Training Camp and make the team.

But that first year, the Islanders sent him back to Sarnia.

“Heading into my first camp, my skating ability was one of the biggest concerns the organization had for me,” Martin said. “It was something I really needed to improve on and I knew that myself.”

After getting a taste of playing with the big club in Training Camp, Martin went on to complete his third season with the Sting during the 2008-09 season and recorded career best numbers in goals (35), assists (30), points (65), +/- ranking (+6), power play goals (17) and shorthanded goals (1).

The following year, Martin came back to Mini Camp with the mindset that he would make the roster and he made his professional debut with the Islanders AHL affiliate, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.

While Martin knew this wasn’t his ultimate goal, he worked hard every day to improve and get his skating up to the level he would need to play in the National Hockey League. Martin spent numerous hours working on his skating technique with Sound Tigers assistant coach Matt Bertani as they practiced skating, studied video of his performance in games and filmed him skating in practice.

His hard work paid off as he was recalled on emergency loan Oct. 25 and has played in 17 games for the Islanders this season. He was also recalled by the Islanders for five games last season where he recorded 2 assists and 26 penalty minutes.

“I’ve worked hard on improving my skating and I’m grateful for everything Matt Bertani has done for me,” Martin said. “He’s helped me a lot. And Bernie (Cassell, the Islanders Skill Development Coach), this year, has also been a huge influence.”

But Martin isn’t the only one who has taken notice in his game. Capuano, who has coached the power forward at different points over the past two seasons, said he's noticed Martin's growth.

“For Matty as a power forward, improving upon his skating does a lot because when he’s one-on-one with a defenseman he has the power to get to the net and use his edges and use his body,” Capuano continued. “That’s what he has to do at the size that he’s at. But it has helped a little bit of everything. His mobility, his agility, his stride, his skating and you can see it in his change of direction and his acceleration as well. But for him to play at this level his skating had to improve and it has.”

His dedication to improvement also says a lot about his character.

“His skating has improved because Matty (Martin) is the kind of guy that if someone says his skating needs to get better, he is going to work on it,” Capuano said. “He has concentrated a lot on his skating, his stride and his body posture. It’s a tribute to him that as hard as he worked, it’s really improved.”

Having someone that brings so much positive energy and effort into every game has made Martin a fan favorite, and someone his teammates look forward to playing alongside. Last season, Gillies played with Martin on the Sound Tigers and made the big club out of camp. He couldn’t say more positive things about his linemate.

“You know what to expect from Matty every night,” Gillies said. “Every shift, he’s going to give it his all, kind of like me and Zenon (Konopka). We might not be the most skilled guys in the league, but we’re going to give you an honest, hard effort every single game. He’s one of my favorite rookies that I’ve ever played with and I’ve played 12 years in the minors.”

Whether it’s 12 years or one year in the AHL, Gillies and Martin have made this transition together and together they take every opportunity to use their intimidating size against the opposition each night.
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