It’s a busy time of year, so kudos to Dean Lombardi for getting his Christmas shopping done early.
The Kings president and general manager, faced with a laundry list of potential free agents and limited capital with which to work, made the appropriate choice to allocate money towards retaining the services of important young defensemen, thus solidifying Los Angeles’ core through the foreseeable future.
When Drew Doughty’s contract expires after the 2018-19 season, Jake Muzzin, who signed a five-year, $20-million extension on October 15, will have just turned 30. Alec Martinez, who signed a six-year, $24-million contract on December 3, will be nearing his 32nd birthday. Three important pieces of the Kings’ young defensive corps will be working together through the primes of their careers, as insured by the decisions Lombardi and Co. have made this past fall.
“It’s cool where you develop as players but you also develop that friendship knowing guys for five, six, seven years and playing with them,” Martinez said. “That’s part of the reason why I really wanted to stay here and be a part of that. It’s very exciting.”
As it stands, the Kings have just over $61 million allotted to 15 players for next season. It’s a figure that contains Slava Voynov’s $4.17-million cap hit; while the defenseman would fit alongside Martinez, Muzzin and Doughty as part of a young defensive core, there is still the uncertainty surrounding his ongoing legal situation. As next season’s salary cap is projected to be in the range of $73 million, the Kings would have just shy of $12 million to designate to a group of impending free agents that includes unrestricted free agents Jarret Stoll, Justin Williams, Robyn Regehr and Jamie McBain and restricted free agents Tyler Toffoli, Tanner Pearson, Jordan Nolan, Kyle Clifford, Martin Jones and Andy Andreoff, plus roster hopefuls such as Nick Shore, Nic Dowd and Jordan Weal among others.
Given the financial restraints, reality dictates that not all free agents-to-be will retained. It also underscores how crucial it is to sign two players early in their primes who play more than 20 minutes a night.
Of the 11 NHL players to have signed a contract extension past 2014-15 since the start of the season, four are defensemen 27 and under in Martinez, Muzzin, Minnesota’s Jonas Brodin (6 years / $25 million) and Calgary’s T.J. Brodie (5 years / $23.25 million).
While the players aren’t consumed with their contract situations and negotiations, they’re certainly cognizant that they exist.
“I’d be lying if I said I never thought about it,” Martinez said. “You obviously think about it. I just tried to take the mentality that if I just kept on working on my game and if I took care of hockey, the rest of it would just take care of itself. I guess you think about it a little bit, but I mean it’s not like it consumed my days by any means.”
The level of improvement in Martinez’s game is evident. It’s based heavily in his experience; none of the other 10 players who have signed extensions this season are able to call on having won multiple Stanley Cups during a period in which their development was the most accelerated. With the injuries and complications to Los Angeles’ back end brought on by the departure of Willie Mitchell and Slava Voynov’s absence, Martinez’s versatility and gained trust has resulted in a significant spike in his usage. His overall time on ice average has leapt by over four and a half minutes from 15:41 a season ago to 20:18 this season, while his power play usage has increased incrementally and his penalty killing time on ice per game has quadrupled.
“Marty’s been pretty solid,” Darryl Sutter said. “…I mean, he shows up for work every day. Not just game day. He shows up every day, works at his game.”
With three goals, 12 points and a plus-11 rating through 28 games, Martinez has ably shaken off an early season injury in continuing his career’s upwards arc and cites “experience” as the catalyst of his growth.
“I went through a lot the last couple years,” he said. “I think experience and having gone through those runs that we’ve made and just learning, I guess. They did a really good job with us of developing skills and developing the little things because at the end of the day, that’s what separates the good players from the great players. I think they do a good job of helping us develop skills like that, making little plays.”
As he has grown, so has his all-around proficiency in all situations. Sutter had previously referenced Martinez as one of the team’s “teen-minute” players, and at certain points during the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons simply didn’t have the lineup space to play the offensive-minded but versatile defender every night.
“Obviously as a player, you want to play,” Martinez said. “It was frustrating, but I just take the experience and learn from it. At some point or another, virtually everybody is going to have to go through a stretch like that and fight through some adversity and I just take it as that.”
So the recent praise directed towards one of last season’s heroes represents the strides he has made in gaining the comfort and trust of the coaching staff in all situations.
The degree of growth Martinez has exhibited comes as no surprise to Tony Gasparini, a Kings scout who had kept tabs on the defenseman from his early days in junior hockey, before Gasparini was hired as a part of Los Angeles’ staff and before Martinez made the jump to Miami University.
“With Alec moving forward, he kept on making jumps to the next level at a young age. Sometimes when doing that, your first parts of the season there is a transition period,” Gasparini said. “He was always a very intelligent player, even throughout this transition period despite not having the offensive success that has gone along with his game throughout his career. With Alec, it was a matter of while he was making the transition, becoming a more assertive player and [allowing] his talents to come through by being assertive both offensively and defensively.”
Like Martinez, Muzzin has also made strides in his game by virtue of – as Sutter has said in the past – “seeing it, hearing it, doing it.”
Incubated by a burgeoning team solidifying its footprint after having won its first Stanley Cup the season prior, Muzzin remained on the team’s roster throughout the entirety of the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, appeared in 17 of 18 playoff games that spring, and showed improvement early in the 2013-14 season. But as recently as January, 2014, Sutter referenced Muzzin’s growth and absorption of NHL experience as a “Baptism by fire”.
It was roughly from that point onward that Muzzin’s development in both the physical and cerebral aspects of the game was accelerated. He finished second in the NHL with a five-on-five Corsi-for rating of 61.1% last season and currently leads the Kings’ defense with a 57.6% rate that determines the percentage of shot attempts directed towards the attacking net while he’s on the ice.
More than the data, Muzzin has been quicker to forget a miscue (link). He’s more confident and assertive in his game and with a 6-foot-3, 214-pound body, is more than capable of dictating – more than absorbing – the physical rigors associated with facing the top forwards on other Western Conference teams.
“It’s been a crazy kind of ride the last couple of years, but it’s something that you work for,” Muzzin said. “You want to be in this position where you’re secure and set for a long term deal. You get excited a little bit, but it’s settled in and now it’s just you come to work like any other day, try to do your job as best you can and try to get better every day. At the end of the day, it’s rewarding from where I’ve been to where I am now. I look forward to the future and winning championships here for a couple years.”
Lombardi’s efforts are far from over as increasingly difficult decisions line ahead. Williams, another integral part of the club’s postseason success, would generate heavy interest amongst contending teams willing to pluck a player from a free agency group that is virtually bereft of skilled forwards in their primes (link). Stoll, an important figure to the team’s depth down the center of the ice, is used and trusted in all situations and has the type of experience few replacements could offer.
But with the appropriate commitment the team has shown to its young defensive core, the Kings will continue to solidify its blue line and build from the net out.
“It’s exciting for us,” Muzzin said. “I think it’s exciting for management and stuff like that to have such a good, young group of guys coming up together. We all get along well, it’s a lot of fun. We have a lot of fun on the back end. It’s exciting for us to know that we’re going to be together for a long time.”
Read Jon Rosen’s everyday coverage of the club at LAKingsInsider.com and follow him on Twitter @LAKingsInsider