You don’t lead the NHL in hits in each of the past five seasons by accident. And the man who holds that distinction – rugged left winger Matt Martin, who signed a multiyear contract with the Maple Leafs on Friday – says there’s an art to the act of body contact that sometimes isn’t appreciated by some hockey fans as much as it ought to be.
“I do think it’s a skill,” said the 27-year-old Martin, who left familiar environs of the New York Islanders organization to join the Leafs. “People think that anyone can go out there and hit, but it’s not quite that easy. It’s a big part of my game, it has an impact on the game, I feel, and hopefully I can continue to have a strong impact with the Leafs.”
Toronto GM Lou Lamoriello signed Martin – who had a career-best 10 goals and 19 points in 80 games with the Isles in 2015-16 – to a four-year deal. When Lamoriello was running the New Jersey Devils, he got a good look at what Martin was all about, and clearly, he liked what he saw in the Windsor, Ont., native. But he wasn’t the only member of the Leafs organization who felt that way.
“His size and strength, and we feel his skating is very good,” Lamoriello said when asked what he liked about Martin’s game. “I’ve had the good experience to play against him for a good number of years where I came from, so I’ve seen him a period of time. And our staff liked him, our coaching staff liked him, and that’s the most important thing.
Martin has 680 career penalty minutes and isn’t at all shy to drop his gloves in defense of a teammate, but he believes he can bring more to the table for Leafs head coach Mike Babcock.
“I want to go out there and be effective,” said Martin, who had 119 penalty minutes last season. “I’m not going out there just to fight, but obviously that’s a big part of my game, I’ve been doing it since junior, and I’m not someone that really likes liberties being taken on my teammates and my friends.
“I’m there to obviously free up space, and be there to help the young guys and open up room for them. But at the same time, my only role isn’t to go out there and drop the gloves. I want to bring more to the team, I want to be a regular player and contribute offensively as well as all the other things that have rounded out my game.”
With 438 games of NHL experience, the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Martin will be one of the more veteran Leafs players this season, and he knows the value of having someone around a young team who’s been through the ups and downs of the professional game.
“As you get a little bit older, you start to understand not letting the emotions of the game, or the emotions of the crowd or the media get the best of you and stay the course,” Martin said. “I think you’ve just got to go out there and not try and be something different. I’ve been successful in this league for playing the way I do. I think coming to the rink every day and working hard, being professional on and off the ice, is probably the best way to show leadership.”
After landing Martin – and dealing for goaltender Frederik Andersen on June 20 – Lamoriello is pleased with where the Leafs’ off-season has taken the team. He’s open to more change, but the addition of youngster Auston Matthews at the NHL draft, along with these additions, has Lamoriello and franchise brass looking forward to what’s ahead.
“If nothing (else) transpires, we feel very good,” Lamoriello said. “As we’ve said all along, we’re extremely happy with where we are, the direction we’re going and we’re not going to change unless we could add something that would help that process, help support that. That’s what we were able to do today.”