RALEIGH, N.C. – Matt Martin didn’t see it coming.
He had played 542 NHL games without ever being removed from the lineup when healthy. He had dressed for 110 of 111 since joining the Toronto Maple Leafs – missing only one last month with a lower-body injury before getting scratched for Friday’s game in Carolina.
Perhaps, most importantly, he is early in Year 2 of the $10-million, four-year contract he signed as a free agent. That status alone is usually enough to protect your spot in the rotation.
“Obviously it’s difficult,” Martin said Friday morning at PNC Arena. “You never want to be out of the lineup. It is what it is, though. You go out there, you work hard, you get ready for your next opportunity.
“I’ll come here tonight, root the boys on, hopefully they get a win.”
It was a decision that came without an explanation.
Martin had yet to sit down for a chat with Mike Babcock and the Leafs coach didn’t offer up much when speaking with reporters. Asked how Martin was taking the decision, he said: “You know, ask Matt.”
What seemed to be behind it, however, was a desire to spread even more balance throughout his lineup. Martin is a meat-and-potatoes player who will drop the gloves on occasion. He plays the fewest minutes on the team and isn’t a threat offensively.
Babcock has often praised him for “keeping the flies off” his skilled young players.
However, when he shortened the bench during Wednesday’s 2-1 shootout loss in Florida, Martin didn’t see a shift beyond the second period.
The Leafs coach has done a fair bit of line juggling recently – “We haven’t shown we can win every night,” he noted Friday – and is seeking to create four forward groups that can hold their own against any opponent.
“When their guy is waiting to hunt your guys – they always pick someone to play against, right?” said Babcock. “And when they’re waiting for that guy and they keep getting you, you never get out of your zone and it starts wearing you out.”
It’s prompted him to shift Patrick Marleau to centre for road games and seems to be behind the decision to insert Josh Leivo for Martin. This is how Toronto’s lines were expected to look against the Hurricanes:
Hyman – Matthews – Marner
Komarov – Kadri – Soshnikov
Leivo – Marleau – Brown
Van Riemsdyk – Bozak – Nylander
Where that leaves Martin going forward bears watching. He’s a popular member of the dressing room, but could find himself following other veteran players who have fallen out of favour with Babcock and endured a long stretch of scratches or been sent to the American Hockey League.
In the short term, he’s taken some solace from the support of his teammates.
“That’s the thing – we have a tight group in here, family-like, which is important,” said Martin. “It makes it a lot easier when you’ve got guys rallying around you. It’s a good group to be a part of.”
The 28-year-old winger was understandably stung by the decision. You could see the disappointment on his face.
He paused when asked if he could recall the last time he was made a healthy scratch.
“I couldn’t tell you,” said Martin. “I don’t know if it has [happened], really. So, yeah, obviously – it’s a long season, there’s ups and downs for everybody. [Babcock and I] haven’t talked yet, but I imagine we will at some point.”