Penguins Trade Rumors: Trade Winds Blow Fickle, but Pittsburgh Needs Paul Martin

James ConleyContributor IIIFebruary 24, 2012

PHILADELPHIA, PA - FEBRUARY 18: Paul Martin #7 of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates against the Philadelphia Flyers at the Wells Fargo Center on February 18, 2012 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The NHL trade deadline is catnip for the shortsighted. Every team's worst players can be spun for every other team's best. The salary cap becomes somehow more elastic. Rick Nash will be a fit for every team (and payroll) in the league.

Injuries and sometimes poor play have hit the Penguins who, like all teams, aren't immune to the fickle winds of trade talk. Eric Tangradi has been mentioned as moveable. Brent Johnson has been disastrous lately.

Then, there's Paul Martin.

Some misinformed fools have been very hard on Martin. Many of the criticisms against him have been warranted. An equal many have been misplaced. Whether he can return to the level of reliability he and defensive partner Zbynek Michalek provided last season is debatable.

What's not debatable is his importance to the team. The Penguins need Paul Martin to perform at a level indicative of his salary if a lengthy Cup run is to be in the cards.

They aren't going to pay for anyone else who can.

Cap Hit

Penguins GM Ray Shero does not spend $25 million lightly. When he shelled out a quick $45 million to Martin and Michalek the summer following the Pens' defensive Chernobyl in the 2010 Montreal series, he was investing in a pair of proven defensemen, assets the post-lockout Penguins have had little trouble mining from their own system. 

When Martin struggles, his $5 million salary—the largest among the team's defensemen—appears larger than it really is.

Compared to others on the team, his salary can seem outrageous. Brooks Orpik is the team's longest-tenured player but makes only $3.75 million per season. Kris Letang has worked his way into the Norris Trophy conversation twice in as many years and makes less than both Martin and Michalek.

Letang and Orpik were Penguin products, and as Shero has shown time and time and time again, he is able to retain in-house assets at salaries far below what desperate teams are willing to overpay on the free-agent market.

Martin and Michalek came from the free-agent market, where players tend to become the subject of bidding wars, thus inflating their prices.

Martin's $5 million cap hit is right in line with other free-agent defensemen such as Sergei Gonchar, James Wisniewski, Jack Johnson and Tomas Kaberle. (And would you swap Martin for any of them?)

Martin's FA status landed him a contract right in line with the league average.

Stat Splits

As suggested in the previous article, Simon Despres' numbers, especially in terms of plus-minus, are far shinier than Martin's. Martin owns a miserable, team-worst minus-10 rating (shared with long-time partner Zbynek Michalek). 

Off the score sheet, he has often looked overmatched physically this season, been caught out of position, or hurt the team's backcheck by moving up on the rush.

These criticisms aren't unwarranted. Far too many of his offensive zone forays end in odd-man rushes for opposing clubs, but that may be because Martin spends more time against opposing talent than any of the Pens' other blueliners.

Elsinore All-Stars took a great look at Martin's zone starts, QCOMP numbers and other advanced metrics. In Martin's case, the bad may be easy to spot, but the good in his game is much more subtle.

QCOMP (Quality of Competition) measures the quality of opponents each player is matched against during faceoffs. The higher a player's QCOMP, the greater the quality of opponent he faces each time they're on the ice. Martin's .063 QCOMP leads the Penguins. Michalek is second at .055. Letang and Orpik have QCOMPs of .0358 and .014, respectively.

Offensive Zone Start Percentage is a measure of how many faceoffs a player takes in the offensive zone. The Sedin twins, for example, have inflated offensive numbers partly because they take over 75 percent of their draws in the offensive zone. Among Pittsburgh defensemen, Martin's 52.9 percent is the second lowest to Letang's 50 percent.

Takeaways are simple, and Martin leads the Pittsburgh defensive corps with 23.

The numbers don't completely absolve Martin of his too-often poor play. He has just 14 registered hits this season, is second among blueliners with 26 giveaways, and has only one goal and 18 points in 53 games.

Could the Penguins trade for a better defenseman before the deadline? Probably not, and they could find themselves entering the postseason leaning on a rookie or otherwise unproven asset to play a major defensive role.

Above all else, if Martin can return to the level he displayed last season when he and Michalek helped comprise the best top-four group in the NHL, the Penguins will have made off far better versus forcing any rushed deal that moves big salary at a critical point of the season.

He played an excellent game in Tuesday's 2-0 shutout of the New York Rangers. The key for Martin, and for Pittsburgh, is to maintain that level of play down the stretch.

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