TORONTO – It started with Doug Weight, Frans Nielsen and Bill Guerin.
They each went out of their way to show 20-year-old Matt Martin the ropes when he first broke into the NHL with the New York Islanders. Now it is Martin’s turn to repay the favour on a Toronto Maple Leafs team brimming with young talent.
He occupies the locker stall beside Auston Matthews in the home dressing room at Air Canada Centre and has become particularly close with Mitch Marner – with the two often going for dinner on the road and even vacationing together in the Cayman Islands during the recent bye week.
Acknowledging the eight-year age gap between them, Marner referred to Martin as a “big brother figure.”
“He’s been a lot of things to me,” said Marner. “I kind of just got to know him this year right off the start. He was one of the first guys here working out in the summertime, so I got to meet him and go out to lunch with him. And then we kind of just got going out more, and having more dinners and stuff with each other.
“I think on the road we kind of just built a good relationship from there and it’s been like that since.”
In a sport becoming ever more fixated on performance metrics, there is still considerable value placed on things that can’t be perfectly quantified.
Lou Lamoriello openly admitted they had paid too much after signing Martin to a $10-million, four-year deal as a free agent on July 1, but added: “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 then you have to make that decision.”
And so the 27-year-old became the guardian of the NHL’s youngest team.
“I’m a big believer that the room should be like a family,” said Martin. “You’ve got to get to know everybody more than just on a hockey level, on a personal level, because that will kind of make you care about everyone even more on the ice.
“You want each other to succeed when you have that tight bond with them.”
For him, it has meant putting the team above everything else.
Martin enjoyed a tremendous amount of stability over 438 games with the Islanders, most often playing a defined bump-and-crash role with Cal Clutterbuck and Casey Cizikas. They were known as the best fourth line in hockey.
Here in Toronto, he’s seeing the lowest ice time of his career – playing just 3:53 during a recent game against Montreal – and has had a variety of different linemates come and go.
“It’s been an adjustment for sure,” said Martin. “You always want to play more and you always want to have an impact every night, but the most important thing is we’re winning right now. To me, that’s the most important thing.
“As a line, we’re still trying to find that identity of what we want to be.”
Off the ice, there are no vagaries or uncertainty.
He is here to know when the mood could be lightened or the whip should be cracked. He is a sounding board, friend, protector and occasional social convenor – something every dressing room can use during the monotony and grind of an 82-game season.
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“If you have siblings, it’s a lot like that,” Martin said of the team environment. “You love each other, but at the same time, sometimes you piss each other off and guys get frustrated with one another.”
His friendship with Marner developed naturally. It wasn’t something he had to force.
“He reminds me of myself, actually,” said Martin. “He’s just enjoying every step of the way. Obviously, he’s kind of taken the league by storm. His success isn’t going to his head, so to speak; he has the exact same attitude that he had when he first walked into this room in training camp.
“He’s an easy-going guy, he likes to have fun and he’s energetic.”
Martin hasn’t attracted much attention thus far while racking up three goals, five points and 79 penalty minutes, but did get a piece of the spotlight at the Centennial Classic.
He fought Detroit’s Steve Ott just before the Leafs exploded for three goals in that outdoor game, and after Matthews scored the overtime winner he immediately sought out his teammate to say that he had pumped him up.
“He’s an unbelievable guy,” said Matthews. “He’s the kind of guy that you want on your team, obviously. He’s been around for a while. He’s a great leader on this team. He’s somebody that doesn’t have a letter, but he leads by example every day and works hard.
“I think he looks out for everybody.”
The value of a player like Martin will never totally be measured in the stats column.
While the more analytically inclined among us would argue that too much is made of intangibles, there’s a different view among the decision-makers with the Leafs. They are thrilled to have someone like Martin aboard to help show a young team the right way.
“Well, it’s huge,” said coach Mike Babcock. “I mean, we don’t get slapped around ever. Like last year we got abused. We never get slapped around (now). Not only is he a good player, he’s a great man. He treats those kids with kindness, and with a firm hand of accountability at the same time. …
“So, he’s got a huge fan in me, I can tell you that.”