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Why the Pittsburgh Penguins Should Sign Paul Martin to a Contract Extension

Carol Schram@pool88Featured ColumnistNovember 14, 2014

Nov 8, 2014; Buffalo, NY, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Paul Martin (7) during the game against the Buffalo Sabres at First Niagara Center. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

With the Pittsburgh Penguins rolling comfortably through the early part of the 2014-15 season, general manager Jim Rutherford is already focused on locking up the team's key talent for future years.

On November 5, Rutherford inked starting goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury to a four-year contract extension. Veteran defenseman Paul Martin should be the next potential free agent on his to-do list.

Martin's contract will expire on July 1. With many teams around the league currently looking for blue-line help, the Penguins could be tempted to trade him during the season to help shore up their forward ranks. But if Pittsburgh is serious about taking a run at the Stanley Cup this season, it should hang onto the two-time Olympian and do what it can to sign him to a new deal.

Martin arrived in Pittsburgh during the summer of 2010. He left behind the New Jersey Devils franchise that drafted and developed him in favor of a Penguins squad that was one year removed from winning a Stanley Cup.

Pittsburgh's contract offer of $25 million over five years was also a nice upgrade from the $3.8 million cap hit he'd incurred in Jersey for the three previous seasons, per CapGeek.com.

As a previous winner in the free-agent sweepstakes, it's been widely assumed that Martin will test the open market again this summer. But on November 10, Martin's agent, Ben Hankinson, told Josh Yohe of the Tribune-Review that his client is currently "open to contract talks as long as they aren't a distraction to the team." 

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During his four-plus years in Pittsburgh, Martin has been a reliable defender—on a team that's best known for its offensive firepower. Martin's not a flashy blueliner, but he can log big minutes, offer a shutdown presence, kill penalties and chip in with the occasional goal. He's had a positive plus-minus every year in Pittsburgh except last season, when he was limited to just 39 games due to injuries.

So far in 2014-15, the Penguins haven't shown any ill effects from losing defensemen Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen and Deryk Engelland to free agency last summer. Their own free-agent signing, Christian Ehrhoff, has been a good fit, and the team is getting solid contributions from throughout the ranks. The third pairing of veteran Rob Scuderi and young gun Simon Despres has been an especially positive surprise.

But Pittsburgh's blue line would look a whole lot thinner without Martin. Even though he's no longer a fixture on the power play, Martin's currently second in ice time behind Kris Letang at 22 minutes a game and is tied with Despres for the best plus-minus among defenseman: a plus-six.

Martin offers an excellent complement to daredevil Letang at five-on-five, staying back to take care of business while his partner seizes opportunities to threaten offensively.

According to Josh Yohe, Martin had been on the ice for just five goals against in 13 games before the Penguins' 5-0 beatdown at the hands of the New York Rangers on November 11. Even that night, he escaped with an even rating and was on the ice only for Derick Brassard's power-play goal.

If Martin were to leave Pittsburgh, who would replace him? Despres has taken a big step forward this season, and the organization has promising young talent like Scott Harrington and Derrick Pouliot in the pipeline. But with the start they'd had, the Penguins look like they could be poised to go deep into the playoffs. They'd be foolish to take a hatchet to the blue line before they see what this group can do.

If anything, Pittsburgh should be buyers rather than sellers at this year's trade deadline. Despite an injury-plagued season in 2013-14, Martin was excellent for Pittsburgh in the playoffs, posting eight assists and a plus-seven in 13 games. A rookie would be hard-pressed to replicate that performance.

Christian Ehrhoff can also become a free agent on July 1, but Martin is the steadier—and likely less expensive—option to bring back next year. Ehrhoff agreed to a one-year deal at $4 million this summer because he was coming out of a buyout situation with the Buffalo Sabres. If Ehrhoff continues his strong season, he will almost certainly be looking for big bucks and serious term once again on his next contract.

If the Penguins trade Martin or let him go, he'll be mighty hard to replace through free agency next summer. Other defensemen in his price range who could become available include Mike Green of the Washington Capitals, 40-year-old Sergei Gonchar of the Montreal Canadiens and 38-year-old Lubomir Visnovsky of the New York Islanders, according to CapGeek.com.

None of the three would represent an upgrade.

Before Martin's agent suggested that he'd be interested in staying with the Penguins, his name was swirling in trade rumors. Bruce Garrioch of the Ottawa Sun suggested on November 1 that the San Jose Sharks could be an interested party.

Martin's a key player for Pittsburgh while Olli Maatta is recovering from neck surgery. He'll provide a calm, veteran presence even after Maatta returns and is indicating that he's interested in sticking around. Rutherford can kibosh an imminent swirl of distracting trade rumors if he signs his steady defenseman to a new deal before much more time has passed.