On the strength of a phenomenal end to the season (15 points, plus-nine in final 22 games) and stellar playoff showing (10 points, plus-one in 26 contests) that cemented his spot as a starter on the team's blue line, Los Angeles Kings rearguard Alec Martinez may be in for a more prominent role.
He isn’t likely to unseat Slava Voynov on the second pair just yet, but the 26-year-old could certainly pilfer a share of the slumping Russian's responsibilities in 2014-15.
It should be noted that while they play on different sides, lining them up on the same unit would be highly improbable—and unwise—given head coach Darryl Sutter’s reluctance to place two puck-movers together.
So, should the Kings enhance Martinez's on-ice presence next season?
Though the mobile blueliner fits into the team’s system and brings quite a few desirable traits to the table, a full-on coming-out party isn’t necessarily in the cards.
A swift-skating defenseman who thrives on puck possession, Martinez provides the requisite counterpoint to Matt Greene’s crash-and-bang attitude on the third pairing.
In 2013-14, his regular-season and playoff five-on-five Corsi percentages were identical at 56.3, which reveals that higher stakes did not detract from his ability to drive play toward the opposition’s net.
Beyond his overtime heroics, Martinez’s willingness to throw shots on target from just about anywhere on the ice was particularly useful to the Kings on the power play. He boasted the highest five-on-four on-ice Corsi among regular defensemen (over one minute of power-play ice time per game) during both the season and playoffs.
Coupled with Marian Gaborik’s arrival, Martinez’s shoot-first impulse led to L.A.’s power-play turnaround.
From the regular season to the postseason, he saw his share of the club’s PP ice time increase from 34.4 to 41.5 percent. In that span, the Kings’ efficiency on the man advantage rose from 15.1 (27th in the league) to 23.5 percent (sixth).
That’s no happy coincidence.
The team’s power play is completely different when the point men force penalty-killers to scramble by moving the puck swiftly and pulling the trigger. Before his promotion, the power play was slow and static.
Martinez is also a key figure in the club’s most critical area: the breakout.
As Jewels from the Crown indicates, he generated the second-most offensive-zone entries per 60 minutes (10.16) among Kings defensemen in the regular season. Drew Doughty, a puck-possession monster, narrowly edged him out at 10.58.
Voynov, who struggled with the puck on his stick all year, lagged behind at 7.53. That’s worse than Greene’s 7.95, and he’s a stay-at-home bruiser.
Executing a defensive stand and successfully gaining the opposition’s zone is vital to the Kings, who feature a ton of talent but little firepower in the dog days of the season.
Therefore, in the regular season, they need every crack at the other team they can get. Their blueliners’ knack for tilting the ice toward the offensive end facilitates their job. Martinez trails only Doughty in this regard, offering a brisk change of pace from the typically lumbering tempo put forth by Greene and Robyn Regehr.
If he is tendered more minutes, it stands to reason the Kings would spend more time on attack.
The question marks surrounding Martinez deal with consistency and deployment. He obviously has the tools, but whether he can bring a sound game on a nightly basis remains to be seen—especially if he's to alleviate some of Voynov's defensive burden.
He had a strong 2013-14 campaign. However, his convincing performances came with the benefit of very sheltered and limited minutes (15 minutes and 40 seconds per game in the regular season, 16:37 in the playoffs).
Meanwhile, Voynov—who was arguably the very worst King in the postseason—faced the fourth-highest quality of competition and third-toughest zone starts.
Despite Martinez's solid showing in the spring, his puck management was iffy at times.
This is to be somewhat expected from a puck-mover, but mistakes of the sort should either be mitigated by speed or positioning. For instance, Duncan Keith commits an alarming number of gaffes only to clean them up in the blink of an eye with his pace and instincts.
In Game 5 against the Anaheim Ducks, Martinez is in total control before coughing the puck up to Ryan Getzlaf in the neutral zone. That’s egregious by itself, but he has the time to react accordingly and fails to disrupt the passing lane.
As a result, Devante Smith-Pelly cruises in for a breakaway goal:
In Game 4 against the Chicago Blackhawks, Martinez this time receives a pass behind his net. With a clear outlet up the boards, he leads the play inside instead of outside.
The errant dish produces a Brandon Saad marker in mere moments:
Though he controlled a similar share of shot attempts from the regular season to the playoffs, his puck management wasn’t quite as crisp and he didn’t cover enough ground following his errors to compensate for them.
If he’s offered more and tougher minutes, tightening up his split-second decision-making will prove to be a tall order.
Nevertheless, he deserves such an opportunity.
Taking the direction of Martinez's and Voynov’s stocks into account, Sutter should consider beefing up the former’s role.
With that said, the transition should be gradual, feeding Martinez a slight uptick in minutes—from 16 to, say, 18 per game—against better competition to assess how he acquits himself.
With CapGeek indicating that he's headed for unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2015, he has a powerful incentive to deliver the goods.
He’s shown the hockey sense required to perform at a high level, and his abilities with the puck are unquestionable. To his right, Greene isn’t an ideal recipient of an increased workload, but he’s certainly at least as competent as the current version of Regehr (Voynov’s partner).
Should the third pairing take the greater responsibilities in stride, Sutter could spread the blue-line minutes out and keep his men fresh throughout the season.
Furthermore, a tweak of this nature early in the year would allow the defense to settle into a groove well ahead of the playoffs.
Rather than sorting the puzzle out on the fly, which led to a nightmarish beginning to the 2013-14 postseason, the Kings could enter the war for Lord Stanley’s Cup with the most cohesive and balanced defensive corps in the league.
If the change doesn’t pan out, L.A. could simply reinstall its usual setup with little harm done to the big picture.
It’s a small gamble that could pay off in spades.
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