TORONTO – Lou Lamoriello poked his head into a frenetic free-agent marketplace and didn’t much like what he saw.
Huge dollars on offer. Term being thrown around everywhere. No-move and no-trade clauses seemingly for everyone.
“I think that everything that happens these days, it’s too much money,” Lamoriello said Friday. “I don’t see many contracts that were signed that were not too much money. I’ve said this year in and year out.
“But when you feel there’s a need and there’s a short supply and you can get in your mind the best player available for that, you have to make that decision.”
So it was somewhat reluctantly that the Toronto Maple Leafs general manager jumped into the fray, signing veteran winger Matt Martin to a $10-million, four-year contract but otherwise trying to leave the big mistakes to everybody else.
In Martin the Leafs hope they’ve found a reliable presence who can help insulate what is sure to be a young forward group next season. The 27-year-old from Windsor, Ont., was used primarily as a fourth-liner by the New York Islanders and probably won’t be asked to take on a larger role in Toronto despite nearly doubling his pay with this contract.
“Not necessarily,” said Lamoriello. “I think the role he plays … I don’t know what word you call it, but it’s certainly a support to allow (the rookies) to feel freer to do the things that they do best as far as how they play.”
Martin has done well to carve out a respectable NHL career.
He was once a walk-on with the Ontario Hockey League’s Sarnia Sting – where he was placed on a line with a promising No. 1 overall pick named Steven Stamkos – and wound up becoming a fifth-round pick of the Islanders who only spent one full season in the American Hockey League.
Now with 438 NHL games under his belt, he’ll be a grizelled veteran in a Leafs dressing room that includes Auston Matthews, William Nylander and possibly Mitch Marner. It’s an opportunity he plans to embrace.
“I think every year you grow and learn more and more about the league,” said Martin. “I think 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 media get the best of you. You stay the course.”
That will be particularly important in Year 2 here under head coach Mike Babcock, with expectations set to be dialled up slightly and no one within the Leafs organization wanting to be part of another 30th-place finish.
There are other players within the team’s system who probably could have handled the minutes that will be doled out to Martin, but there wouldn’t have been the same level of trust with them. Toronto is trying to build modestly and slowly, and a premium is being placed on adding the right kind of veterans to pull the operation along.
In providing a scouting report on Martin, Lamoriello said he liked his “size and strength.”
“We feel his skating is very good,” he added. “I’ve had the good experience to play against him for a good number of years, where I came from (in New Jersey), so I’ve seen him over a period of time. Our staff liked him, our coaching staff liked him and that’s the most important thing.”
Martin had a pretty impressive list of suitors, including the Detroit Red Wings, who offered a chance for him to play even closer to home.
Once he made the decision to leave the Islanders last month, he thought he was prepared for everything free agency brings. Then Friday arrived and he had to sort through multiple offers along with his agents from Newport Sports.
“It’s nerve-wracking, it’s hard,” said Martin. “When the day finally comes you have a little bit of a pit in your stomach – not knowing your future. … There’s so many things that come into play in picking a franchise.
“It was a hard decision.”
After striking out in a bid to lure Stamkos back to his hometown earlier this week, the Leafs aren’t aggressively working the market. They’ve got Martin now and wouldn’t mind adding a depth defenceman – there’s believed to be some interest in right-shooting James Wisniewski – but won’t be getting in any bidding wars to do it.
If anything, the organization has to be extremely careful with its salary cap situation, especially since Jared Cowen’s buyout is now the subject of an arbitration hearing and they’ll likely have multiple players hitting entry-level bonuses in 2016-17.
Lamoriello sounded an ominous tone when asked about veteran Joffrey Lupul’s status – “I have no comment on that situation,” he said. “Right now Joffrey is on our roster and I think that’s all I have to say” – which leaves you with the impression they’ll be subtracting as much as adding.
The Leafs had a lot of conversations over the last week but didn’t find much beyond Martin that made sense given where they’re at.
“We really weren’t in the market, so to speak, to do much,” said Lamoriello. “But you talk just to make sure you’re aware of what’s going on and if there’s something unique that comes about that can help you, you have to be available to that.”