TORONTO – There’s a chance the streak Matt Martin never wanted ends here.
An undisclosed member of the Toronto Maple Leafs forward core — a talented, chemically combustible dozen that has been slicing through the competition at an 11-2 clip without their toughest member in uniform — is sick Thursday.
If that player remains under the weather come the 7 p.m. ET puck drop, then the 13th forward’s games-played drought will end exactly one month and 13 unlucky games after it began, against his former team no less.
"What happens in sport is when you get out and the other guys play good and they win, sometimes you don’t get back in right away. That’s just the way it is," said Leafs coach Mike Babcock Thursday, in advance of a tilt versus the New York Islanders.
"That doesn’t make it easy for him in any way, but he’s a good pro who works hard every day and he’ll be ready."
Despite holding contracts beyond 2018, both Martin and automatic scratch Josh Leivo were leapfrogged on the Leafs’ winger depth chart by the speedy Kasperi Kapanen, who soared out of the American Hockey League in January to kill penalties and take jobs.
Martin, 28, never had to deal with missing games — healthy or injured — back in his Islanders days, when the Voltron of he, Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck crashed, banged and scored as for a carefree stretch The Best Fourth Line in Hockey.
Over the summers of 2016 and 2017, Clutterbuck and Cizikas were both rewarded with rich, long-term extensions on Long Island. Martin, a Windsor, Ont., native, signed in Toronto for a little less time and money.
Martin still has two more seasons beyond this one with the Leafs, but the only thing that could squeeze him into the lineup this week is someone else’s flu.
"He’s extremely disappointed," Clutterbuck said in an interview. "He wants to be out there; he wants to help. It’s a tough thing getting into a situation where whoever’s in charge of making those decisions doesn’t want you in the lineup. It’s hard not to take it personally.
"He just wants to get back into a lineup, wherever it is, and play. Wherever that ends up being, whether it’s here [in Toronto] or somewhere else, he’s going to have the same impact he always has."
Clutterbuck and a few other Islanders had dinner with Martin Wednesday night. He still counts his former linemate as a good friend, and the two train together throughout the summer in New York, where Martin spends his off-seasons.
Clutterbuck hasn’t given much thought to the trade-deadline speculation of the Islanders reacquiring Martin, but he’s certainly not opposed to the idea.
"Him, Casey and I have played well together in the past, so I’m sure if he were to come back, it would be business as usual for him and probably a familiar place for him to pick up right off the hop. But that stuff’s way over my pay grade, and I try to worry about what’s in front of me," Clutterbuck said.
"Around the league, traditionally, [Long Island] has gotten a bad rap from players, but it is really a great place to live, a great place to play. We have a lot of Canadian junior kids, a lot of Ontario guys here, so it creates familiarity. We’re all tight. We all have similar backstories. And the guys who aren’t from Canada all have similar personalities. We all get along. It’s a really unique group that way. We have a lot of fun."
Martin appeared to be having fun in Toronto, too. But his role on the club has quickly morphed from ironclad to paper-thin. More free-agent veterans, Patrick Marleau and Ron Hainsey, were given multi-year deals to skate more minutes and help shepherd the kids.
Granted, Martin can contribute in other ways, but he’s dropped the gloves just five times this season, down from 13 in 2016-17. This makes sense considering that fighting is down, again, league-wide. Last season there were 0.34 fights per game; this season the rate has dropped to just 0.24.
Does Toronto hold on to Martin knowing it has few options to fill the nasty checker department if Leo Komarov walks as free agent this summer? Do the Leafs want to keep Martin as an option in case they find themselves in a mucky playoff series? Or is the Leafs’ identity, their wing depth and the speed of today’s game simply not a good fit anymore?
"I’ve been in the league long enough, they know what they’re getting from me," Martin told us after getting "pissed off" from his first healthy scratch, an apparent one-off back on Nov. 24.
Babcock was asked about Martin’s role with the group Thursday and said, "He’s an important guy on our team."
Clutterbuck says Martin has the ability to change a game’s momentum, be it with a fight, a hit, a forechecked-forced turnover or even a nifty offensive play.
"Even when he walks into a room, he’s a big guy, kinda has an aura about him. We had a thing with him, Casey and I where we were able to go out and create energy and make defencemen second-guess when they had to go back for pucks. Make people cringe when they had to go out against us. Maybe it changes the way some guys approach the game when they come in playing you," Clutterbuck says.
"He’s a presence."
A presence at high risk of being marked absent.