Rangers should pursue Islanders’ Matt Martin under one condition
Maybe it is simply recency bias. Maybe I should put more stock in the hockey that was played during the winter, when the Rangers looked for all the world to be a better team than the Islanders and went 2-for-2 against them at the Coliseum in a pair of thrilling games.
And maybe I am putting too much emphasis on the way the Blueshirts were taken to the woodshed without resistance by a Carolina team that seemed an imposing contender but was outed as an imposter the very next round by the Bruins. Maybe that, coupled with the dogged and inspirational show put on by the Islanders essentially every other night for six weeks in making it to Game 6 overtime of the conference finals, has unduly influenced my perception of the Ballad of New York.
Because though the Islanders probably need a little more Rangers in them in order to make it to the top, and that means a little more high-end offensive skill at the top of the depth chart, the Rangers definitely need a lot more Islanders in them in order to become a viable Stanley Cup contender, and that means a lot more grit and heaps more dedication to playing structured, unyielding hockey.
Interestingly enough, the Rangers are likely to have the opportunity to put a fairly significant piece of the Islanders’ formula into their lineup. That piece wears No, 17, his name is Matt Martin, and he is an impending free agent eligible to hit the open market on Oct. 9, which is two weeks from this coming Friday.
The question I have is not whether Martin can add some of those missing elements to the Rangers, because he could and he would. The question is not whether Martin is ready to make the jump from Hempstead Turnpike to Broadway, but whether the Rangers are ready for him. The question is whether the Rangers would give Martin the opportunity to make an impact even if they sign him.
Categorizing Martin as the left wing on the Islanders’ fourth line might be technically true but it is practically faulty. Because Martin for years — other than the two-season stretch in Toronto — has been the left wing on the Islanders’ Identity Line, combining primarily with Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck to form a template for the way the team plays.
Now you tell me whether the Rangers as currently constituted, and as they have been deployed the past two years by David Quinn, are ready to make that kind of transition to giving their bottom six, let alone the fourth line, that kind of responsibility and sway. It is difficult to separate the personnel from the philosophy, and I have been writing about this for two years, but the Blueshirts’ fourth line has essentially been a repository for leftover parts and players needing a check on their work habits.
You can succeed during the regular season by leaning on your horses, and especially so if one of them is named Artemi Panarin and another is called Mika Zibanejad. But it is reinforced year after year that isn’t enough to win in the postseason. It is reinforced year after year that teams that rely too heavily on talent wind up watching teams that are knee deep in sandpaper compete for the Cup.
Martin averaged 10:09 of even-strength time this year after getting 11:10 per from Barry Trotz two seasons ago. Quinn’s two Rangers teams have had a jumble of fourth-liners, but it is worth noting Cody McLeod averaged 6:48 playing left wing on the fourth line two years ago ,and Micheal Haley got 5:30 per this season before leaving the lineup for good on Jan. 21 for bilateral core surgery.
And if slipping in the ice time of two rather faded fourth-line enforcers with Martin might be somewhat out of context, consider that Gregg McKegg, the club’s customary center on that unit, this year got 8:36 per, and that includes some time he spent up on the wing.
Again, I know Quinn has insisted he believes in being a four-line coach, but there has been scant evidence of that so far. He did seem to give a little more responsibility to the Brendan Lemieux-McKegg-Julien Gauthier combination that emerged over the last couple of weeks of the season, but a check of naturalstattrick.com reveals that the trio was intact for a total of 33:25 of 5-on-5 hockey over the final eight games. And then, when Lemieux was suspended for the first two games of the qualifying round, the McKegg-Brett Howden-Gauthier fourth line was intact for a total of 3:19.
We have no idea when the 2020-21 season will open or under what conditions the season will be played, presuming it can be played at all. There is no way to guess when the Rangers will be back at the Garden or when fans will be permitted to attend games in New York. So the uniqueness of it all might dampen the degree of difficulty with which an impact player invariably must contend when crossing the river to Manhattan from either the Island or New Jersey. That is something both parties must weigh if Martin does get to free agency and if the Rangers are in on the 31-year-old, who will surely command more than the $2.5 million per he earned on his expiring contract.
But more than that, both Martin and the Rangers will have to evaluate whether this would be than a marriage of convenience. The Rangers would have to commit to the player more than, it seems, than the player to the team. The Rangers would have to commit to a four-line, playoff mentality. The Rangers would have to embrace a change to their identity.
The construction crew in the front office has done well on a top-down basis. The next step, and a critical one, entails building from the bottom up. If that is the plan, it should include pursuit of Martin. If not, signing No. 17 would be a waste of time.
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