Matt Martin talks trade, Toronto, and the Tavares decision

NHL insider Luke Fox joins the Jeff Blair Show with Ashley Docking and Sheri Forde to put Maple Leafs' fans at ease with respect to signing their 3 young core forwards, Matthews, Marner and Nylander on top of John Tavares' contract.

When Mitchell Marner spots Matt Martin across the room, his face alights and he beelines it in for a hug, caring little that the bigger man is in the middle of speaking with a reporter.

Yeah, we’re pretty sure their friendship will survive the trade.

The former Toronto Maple Leafs teammates had spent some time together the July weekend prior to Martin’s getting dealt back to the New York Islanders in the wake of free agent frenzy and John Tavares’s decision. Martin told Marner a deal was imminent.

“It was mixed emotions. I heard about the J.T. signing, so I was all happy about that, then Marty kinda told me he thinks he’ll be on the move,” Marner said at his Marner Assist Fund charity shindig.

“That hit me hard.”

Marner explains how Martin, a rare Leafs veteran on the roster in Marner’s 2016-17 rookie season, and his fiancée, Sydney Esiason, would take him out to dinner.

“Like I was literally their son,” Marner says. “And Syd, with my girlfriend, she’s been amazing. Coming in as first-year people, you don’t know anyone, and Syd made her feel at home right away. Same with Martin. I wish him the very best. I’m sure I’ll see him lots in the summer regardless where he plays.”

Martin, 29, says he and Marner clicked right away, and his fit as the protector for so many of the young Leafs core was a fantastic one, initially. Signed in the summer of 2016 by then-GM Lou Lamoriello to a four-year, $10-million deal as a free agent, Martin played all 82 games his first winter in Toronto and piled up 123 penalty minutes.

“Marty keeps the flies away,” coach Mike Babcock would remind anyone who suggested Martin should sit for a winger younger or faster.

But in the back half of 2017-18, not yet halfway through his contract, Babcock began sitting Martin in favour of Marlies graduates demanding ice time. Toronto had come into its identity as a team that will hit you with waves of offence more so than shoulders and fists.

“The league’s changed a lot where there aren’t as many fights anymore and whatnot,” reasons Zach Hyman, another young Leaf who benefitted from Martin’s wisdom.

So it was of little surprise to anyone, least of all Martin himself, that he was traded back to Long Island, and back to Lamoriello, on July 3, after the Leafs paid his $1.5-million signing bonus.

Martin was dropping the family dog off at the trainers in Long Island when he got a call from Kyle Dubas, Lamoriello and his agent.

“While I was talking to them on the phone, my meter ran out and I got a parking ticket,” says Martin, inspired that Lamoriello sought him out a second time.

“It means a lot. Lou’s a pretty loyal guy and we have a good relationship. Obviously, things didn’t work out the way I wanted here in Toronto, but he still has a lot of faith in me as a player and a person, and I’m looking forward to proving him right on the Island and getting back on track — not only for myself but for that team as well. Hopefully we can surprise a lot of people.”

Despite the installation of Stanley Cup winners Lamoriello and Barry Trotz at the helm, Tavares’s decision to sign with Toronto over New York infuriated Isles fans to a jersey-burning degree.

Martin counts Tavares as a close friend. Struggling with his choice leading up to July 1, Tavares would ask Martin questions about the Leafs, and Martin would answer honestly, not trying to sway him one way or the other.

“The city of Toronto, I obviously didn’t have to convince him on. In my opinion, it’s one of the best cities in the world and being a Maple Leaf is a huge honour for anybody, especially someone from the city,” Martin says.

“I know he struggled with the decision and made the decision that was in heart, the one he wanted to make for himself and his family. It’s hard for the people of Long Island. It’s hard for his former teammates and myself, who wishes he was still there.

“We gotta live with it as an organization, but I’m happy for him. Happy he’s happy.”

Martin’s happy, too.

The healthy scratches weren’t so healthy for his psyche — “I get so much anxiety just sitting there,” he told us when things went south — and he’s encouraged by his initial chat with Trotz.

“You look at his track record in Nashville and Washington. He seems to like a big, physical team,” Martin says. “He was pretty straightforward about how he views me, what he thinks of me as a player and what I can improve on, so I’m really excited to work under him in September.”

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

Back in February, when the Isles visited Toronto and Martin couldn’t buy a shift, Islanders checker Cal Clutterbuck told us “it would be business as usual” if Martin were to return to New York, skating with Clutterbuck and Casey Cizikas, reuniting one of the most effective fourth lines in hockey.

“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 said.

“He’s a presence.”

Clutterbuck and Cizikas immediately reached out to Martin once his trade for goalie prospect Eamon McAdam was announced.

“Those are two guys I was close with when I was there and continue to be close with when I left,” says Martin.

“You build relationships and bonds and friendships that never go anywhere. Not just hockey but in the city of Toronto. You meet people that have a lasting impression on your life. It was a great two years. I was happy to experience the city of Toronto. I wish it went better at times, but you move forward and keep trucking along.”

Right before getting swallowed by Marner’s hug, Martin closes the page on his time as a Leaf.

“I’ll continue to be close with a lot of these guys,” he vows. “On the ice, we’ll have our battles and have some fun with it. Toronto has a lot to be excited about as an organization. There’s a bright future ahead with these guys. Mitchy, Matty, Willy… go down the list.”

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