The Bridgeport Sound Tigers concluded practice a couple weeks ago by forming the traditional stretching circle. Coach Jack Capuano decided it was time for a little mischief.
He tapped each player and told him he had a good skate. Every player but one, that is.
Capuano purposely skipped rookie forward Matt Martin
, knowing it would have the same effect as handing out treats to a group of dogs but ignoring the youngest, most rambunctious puppy. And, right on cue, Martin cocked his head and pleadingly looked up.
"Hey coach, what about me?" Martin said. "Good skate today?"
Capuano looked back at Martin with a wry grin that said, "Yes, good skate for you, too."
That's the way it goes with Martin. It takes a conscious effort to ignore him, and even then it's not that easy.
The 6-foot-2, 192-pound Martin, 20, is becoming a can't-miss fan favorite in Bridgeport for his habit of dropping the hammer on opponents and spilling a few points on the score sheet (8 goals, 7 assists). It's an act that couldn't be timed any better. The skill-heavy Islanders could use a little protection up top, and with just a bit more seasoning the rugged Martin might next in line for that role.
"The feeling of knocking someone over, I don't know what it is," he said. "The fans go crazy. You get some confidence. It's in my blood. It's what I like to do."
There was a time not so long ago when Martin had to be nudged in that direction. In youth hockey, he started building a reputation as a scorer. The OHL collectively yawned, bypassing him in its draft. So Martin, then 17, got a chance as a walk-on with Sarnia.
Martin's dad, Jim, urged his son to leave his calling card with bruises instead of goals. When Jim talked on this topic, Matt knew to listen. Back in his playing days, Jim was something of a pit bull himself. In the real world, he put in long hours working various jobs for Canadian Pacific Railway,
"He's someone I've listened to my whole life. He's a straight shooter," Matt said.
So at his first training camp with Sarnia, Martin made a point to plant anyone who had the misfortune of wearing a different color jersey than the one on his back. The suitably impressed Sting rewarded him with a contract.
"That was the one thing I had to do. Whoever had the puck, I tried to hit them," Martin said. "My career took off after that. I've always been a kid who will do whatever it takes to make it."
Martin's early job as a bodyguard put some prize talent under his care. In his second season with the Sting, he skated on a line with Steve Stamkos.
"I think he helped me out a lot with my game and my confidence," Martin said. "He helped pump me up. My first few games with him, I didn't want to make too many mistakes. You can be off the top line as quickly as you can be on it."
Martin must have been taking scoring notes from his buddy, too. He netted 25 goals two years ago, then boosted that number by 10 last year. He's also broken out the razzle-dazzle in Bridgeport, converting on a pair of shootout attempts and also burying a penalty shot.
"I like to think I have a pretty good shot," Martin said. "I like to come in with my speed and use my shot to the best of my advantage."
Martin, whom New York grabbed in the fifth round of the 2008 draft, made sure to cover all his bases in training camp with the Islanders this season. He scored 2 goals in an exhibition game vs. Calgary, got in three fights combined in his preseason action and generally left the impression there's more where that came from as soon as the Islanders shine the Bat light.
"I was trying to make an impact any way I could," he said.
"There's an element in his game that is something the Islanders need. This guy here is a fierce competitor," Capuano said. "He's not afraid to go to any areas on the ice. I can't (count) on one hand of the 40-plus games we've played when he hasn't led our team in hits. Matt Martin
is making a name for himself, that's for sure."
"There's an element in his game that is something the Islanders need. This guy here is a fierce competitor. He's not afraid to go to any areas on the ice. I can't (count) on one hand of the 40-plus games we've played when he hasn't led our team in hits. Matt Martin
is making a name for himself, that's for sure" -- Jack Capuano
The progress is in the details. Capuano vouches for his prospect's tenacity in pouring over video clips of his shifts, a review that Martin uses to scan for signs of his primary soft spot.
"I guess one of the biggest things I need to work on is my skating. I try to focus on that," he said. "We just try to break down my stride, try to make it so the critics don't have anything bad to say."
And how does Martin see that turning out?
"I take it very personal when people criticize my game," he said. "I want to shove it right back down their throats."
From Sarnia to Bridgeport to the Islanders, that feistiness gets harder to back up as the levels change. Martin's message to opponents remains on point: take your best shot.
"Usually when a guy hits me, I look for the next opportunity to hit him," he said. "There's a thing called fight or flight. I definitely have the fight in me."
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Author: Lindsay Kramer | NHL.com Correspondent