After a season-and-a-half spent alternating between starts and healthy scratches, the 26-year-old is back in the lineup and poised to keep his spot. Martinez isn’t content to merely play either, as he has quietly established himself as one of the most valuable Kings defensemen over the team’s current eight-game win streak.
In his last five outings, the puck-moving blueliner has notched three goals and two assists while recording a plus-three rating.
In his previous 40 games, he had only registered seven points and a plus-seven rating.
Beyond his production, Martinez’s style of play is a tailor-made foil to the stay-at-home approach offered by partner Willie Mitchell.
Though the fourth-year pro isn’t risky on the ice, he is assertive, continually looking to push play toward the opposition’s zone. This is reflected in his strong on-ice Corsi (shot attempt differential per 60 minutes) of 13.77, which ranks fourth among Kings defensemen behind puck-possession monsters Drew Doughty (18.19) and Jake Muzzin (24.09), as well as Matt Greene (16.68).
Should Sutter give Martinez more minutes?
Martinez has great pace to his game—both in his skating and passing—and his decision-making is just as swift. This skill set benefits the Kings’ breakout tremendously, turning a defensive stand into a clean zone exit on a dime.
Monday’s contest against the Calgary Flames made a case for how crucial the transition game is to the Kings.
In the first period, with Calgary boasting an edge in momentum early on, Martinez broke up a play in his end. Rather than initiating a slow back-and-forth with his pairmate or throwing the puck away to be safe—both choices that Mitchell often resorts to—he immediately, instinctively dished the puck to an open area for the forwards to skate onto.
Seconds later, Justin Williams tipped a beautiful Anze Kopitar pass home, and the Kings were on their way to a win:
Was Martinez the sole reason L.A. took the lead? Of course not, but he put his teammates in a position to succeed by impelling them up the ice without breaking stride. Other than Doughty, he might be the only rearguard on the team capable of achieving this on a consistent basis.
Ringing pucks off the glass and out of the zone simply isn’t good enough because it concedes possession and leads to another stretch of defending.
Conversely, holding on to the puck too long in hopes of finding the right play—a bad habit that Slava Voynov is especially guilty of—leads to turnovers in dangerous areas of the ice.
The key is making one smart, crisp decision under pressure to launch the attack.
The Kings are at their best when their movement is fluid, limiting opponents to one-and-dones and subsequently smothering them in extended cycles and a tireless forecheck.
As of March 13, they lead the league in Corsi and Fenwick percentage. They control games by controlling zone time. Therefore, dominating the neutral zone—tilting the ice in their favor—is of the utmost importance. If you can’t leave your end with possession, you aren’t likely to impose your will on the other team.
Martinez fits perfectly into this system. He can skate the puck out of harm’s way, he’s a deft passer and his read of when to join the offense is terrific.
In fact, he’s such a great fit that he leads Kings defensemen in on-ice plus/minus per 60 minutes at plus-1.18. In other words, if Martinez were to play every minute of a game, Los Angeles would win the even-strength battle by 1.18 goals.
The next closest mark among the club's blueliners is Doughty’s plus-0.69. Granted, Doughty plays much tougher minutes, but that Martinez leads this category speaks to his effectiveness within L.A.’s scheme.
He understands what’s expected of him and executes accordingly.
He’s peaking at the right time, too.
Mitchell and Robyn Regehr are aging more quickly than Kings fans might want to admit, and while the team can survive their shortcomings in the regular season due to the diligent three-zone work of its forwards, the playoffs are a different beast altogether.
This issue rose to the fore during L.A.’s 2013 postseason run, as the forwards—dog-tired from bailing out their defensemen all over the ice for a lockout-shortened, 48-game season—had virtually nothing left in the tank and forced the team into unfamiliar territory: conservative hockey.
Kopitar and Dustin Brown were shells of their former selves, the bottom six was an outright liability and the opposition was skating circles around the Kings defense.
Over the course of those series, we witnessed an entirely different Kings team.
This one was always on its heels instead of taking the game to the opposition. Its Corsi percentage dropped from 56.4 in the regular season to 49.3 over 18 uninspired playoff outings. It wasn’t playing the tough, relentless Kings hockey that Sutter had instilled and fans had come to admire. It was just hoping to survive.
For an organization that opened a win-now window the minute it acquired Mike Richards, that’s not good enough.
Lineup stability and Martinez’s comfort in his role are mitigating this postseason concern right now in the regular season by lightening the forwards’ defensive burden.
With his active stick, sound positioning and deceptive physicality, Martinez can defend well first and foremost. Furthermore, he makes life easier for everyone around him by managing the puck efficiently and facilitating the team’s breakout.
It seems obvious, but it bears repeating: The less time L.A. spends in its zone, the better.
When the playoff gauntlet is thrown down, the checking will grow tighter, stars will have considerably less space with which to operate and squads will see their depth challenged. The Kings will see their vaunted puck-possession game put to the test every other night.
Martinez will need to be up to the task, doing his part to drive the play as well as his team forward on the hunt for a second championship in three seasons.