Paul Martin hasn't played a game for the Pittsburgh Penguins since February 7. As if the Pittsburgh Penguins hadn't been struggling enough with injuries throughout their 2013-14 campaign, the Team USA defenseman sustained a broken hand while playing in the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Even with the NHL season frozen, the Penguins still managed to find ways to lose players. That's been the common thread that has woven their season together, though, and they have still managed to crack the 100-point barrier.
Another division title also appears to be in hand, and Pittsburgh is getting healthy just in time for the postseason. Kris Letang, after having a stroke, has skated and could be ready for the start of the playoffs, according to Dave Molinari of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Martin had been doing the same thing for a few days now, and he's declared himself ready to come back.
Martin: "The [doctors] said it was up to me. I said I'm ready. Felt good the last couple days skating. (Playing) is the next step." #Pens— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) April 3, 2014
Will the 33-year-old key a turnaround for a squad that has been playing and looking quite average over the last three or four weeks? On his own he can't, but the ripple effect that his rebound could have certainly could.
It's no secret that Olli Maatta and Matt Niskanen have gone from depth defenders to top-four staples this season as the Penguins have battled countless injuries on the blue line. Maatta has been so impressive that Shelly Anderson of the Post-Gazette believes that he deserves some consideration for the Calder Trophy.
Meanwhile, Niskanen has evolved from trade toss-in to a guy whom head coach Dan Bylsma can count on for more than 20 minutes a night on average, according to ESPN.com. In Martin's absence, everyone has had to play more than usual and take on more responsibilities than expected.
Now that he's back and at 100 percent, guys on the back end can begin to settle into more natural and fitting roles as the playoffs loom. Bylsma now knows that he can lean on Maatta and Niskanen if he needs to, but now he won't be required to. How much more effective will Niskanen be if he sees his ice time reduced by a few minutes?
Ditto for Maatta, who, at 19 years, old isn't used to the rigors of playing this often through an entire NHL season. If the pairing made for an average top two, then it'll make for a well-above-average bottom pair.
That's the direction the Penguins are heading in as they get bodies back in the lineup. Martin isn't the offensive threat that he used to be, but it's impossible to replace his simple approach to the game when he's under pressure. Martin has played in 67 career playoff games, has Olympic experience and frequently dresses for the U.S. during World Championship action.
His demeanor in the locker room will be a calming one—more so than if Maatta or Niskanen were being looked to as leaders on the blue line.
Martin doesn't have a Stanley Cup ring, but he was outstanding for Pittsburgh during its run to the Eastern Conference Final last year. With 11 points in 15 games, he looked like he was 26 again. He might not be able to match that kind of offensive output, but his experience will help settle down a defensive corps that has looked a bit panicky since the beginning of March.
Knock on wood or pray to the hockey gods if you want, but with Martin set to return, the Penguins are only one player away from having the top six that they envisioned back in October. It's unclear exactly when Letang will be able to suit up, but Pittsburgh's depth receives a big boost with Martin healthy and playing.
His return will also push a guy like Deryk Engelland or Robert Bortuzzo out of the lineup. While they've both been serviceable this season, they're much more suited for the role of depth defenseman. Pittsburgh's defensive capacity has been tested in an extreme fashion throughout this campaign.
To a man, the players have elevated their games to new levels. Whether it's Maatta becoming an Olympic-caliber defenseman over the course of a few months or Engelland playing steady way more often than was expected, Martin's return bumps everyone one spot closer to where they can be their most successful.