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Leafs’ Matt Martin talks healthy scratch life: ‘I get so much anxiety’

TORONTO – It’s the buzz that most bothers the man who was brought in to keep the flies off.

As has become the new normal during Toronto Maple Leafs games, Matt Martin and Josh Leivo won’t be on the ice or up in the press box when the puck drops on the Battle of Ontario Saturday.

Instead, they’ll be peddling exercise bicycles and heaving weights in the bowels of the Air Canada Centre, aligning their exercise — at least time-wise — with those higher on coach Mike Babcock’s depth chart. You know, the hockey players actually playing hockey games.

"You can hear crowd noise a lot, but you don’t know what’s going on," Martin said in an interview Friday, anticipating his eighth consecutive healthy scratch.

"It’s a weird feeling. It’s harder to watch the game than it is to play it."

Imagine being in the arena without having any immediate purpose, listening to thousands react to someone younger and cheaper do a job you could’ve sworn they hired you to do.

"Watching is the hardest. I get so much anxiety just sitting there,” Martin says. “You feel like you can’t control anything — and that’s hard.”

Martin is 28. When the benchings began, he was in the midst of his most effective season as a pro.

The fourth-line winger had already surpassed last season’s total in points (11) and was set to zip past 20 for the first time his eight NHL seasons. He curbed his penalty minutes to a career low, and his possession metrics were more than respectable. Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews have both spoken about his underrated hands, which are being knuckled-up less often.

Babcock appeared to be one of Martin’s staunchest supporters. Despite some critics’ pleas, the left side of that fourth unit remained the possession of the affable enforcer despite an everlasting tryout at centre and a right side used as a temporary teaching space for Marner or William Nylander or Connor Brown.

The security guard’s job security could be justified. He has two-and-half more seasons at a $2.5-million cap hit, and Toronto isn’t exactly overflowing with checkers who cause opponents to look over their shoulder.

But the Leafs are now 7-1 with Martin listening, watching and trying to stay positive while feeling "pissed off."

They’re faster. Demoted top-sixer Leo Komarov looks better suited down the lineup, and call-up Kasperi Kapanen leapfrogged Leivo and Martin to become one of Babcock’s new favourite penalty killers. And he’s a natural scorer. It’s difficult to argue that the fourth line of Komarov-Moore-Kapanen hasn’t looked better.

"Marty is a real important guy and, obviously, a real good guy," Babcock said this week. "You don’t want him out of the lineup. In saying that, though, Kapanen is an elite penalty killer and has real good speed. We’ve got real good tempo. Those are hard decisions you make.

"They’re personal decisions for the player; they’re not personal decisions for us. They’re just based on hockey."

Martin says he and Babcock met to address the situation once but declines to divulge details.

"That’s between me and him, I guess. We had the one discussion and haven’t had one since. As players, you can only control what you can control," says Martin, following another extra-long practice session.

"You never want to leave the rink feeling like you didn’t put your work in that day. You want to get something out of it. Hopefully I’ll be able to take something away from all this in the end."

During these weeks stepping back and watching his friends on TV from the dressing room, Martin says he sees "a really young, confident group" blessed with lights-out goaltending.

"When we’re playing hard on the work ethic side, it’s not an easy night for any team to come in here. That’s what I notice most," Martin said. "When we’re dialled in and we’re playing the way we’re supposed to structurally, it’s hard for anyone to beat us."

Although they’re both predicated on Toronto’s atypical wing depth, Leivo’s predicament is different. Martin has more money, more term on his deal, and is a more known commodity to potential trade suitors. (It should be noted that Martin still spends his summers on Long Island, where he was a fan favourite whose lineup spot was never questioned.)

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So, has Martin reached the point Leivo did, where he’s asked the Leafs to play me or move me?

"That’s something I never want to talk about publicly," Martin said. "From Leivs’s standpoint, I think it’s been hard on him. He’s been a great teammate through it all. He wants to play like any player.

"For me, any discussion I have with the coach or management, I generally like to keep quiet. Everyone is very supportive of Leivs in this room and understands how hard it’s been on him for a while. In the end, it’ll all work out for the best."

The first game Martin got scratched was on Nov. 24 in Carolina.

The Leafs won, but a passionate Martin jumped right back in the following game versus Washington, full hits of vinegar.

"I’ve been in the league long enough, they know what they’re getting from me," he told us then.

Today, through thinly veiled disappointment and frustration, Martin preaches positivity and work ethic. It helps that he doesn’t have to glance too far to find another teammate who’s been line-juggled or scratched or his expected role modified.

"Whenever you need time to vent, there’s a lot of guys here you can talk to — generally in the hot tub after practice," Martin smiles. "It’s a good group of guys and a close group of guys."

The Feb. 26 trade deadline may provide clarity or further test the patience being exercised on the fringes of a maxed-out Maple Leafs roster.

"If you haven’t played in a while, you can get a little rusty and a little lackadaisical. It’s important to keep all the crap out of your head and go about your business every day," Martin says.

"When I get my chance to go back in the lineup, you gotta be ready."