The 13-7-5 Los Angeles Kings have put forth inconsistent showings this year in large part due to the defense’s inability to consistently break out of its zone.
Alec Martinez’s return from injury should help smooth out this blemish going forward.
Even more good news arrived on Wednesday, as Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman reported that the defenseman has signed a six-year, $24 million extension with the team:
Alec Martinez 6 yrs, $24M— Elliotte Friedman (@FriedgeHNIC) December 3, 2014
As a mobile and confident blueliner, Martinez will provide great value and breathe life into a back end that has frequently skated in circles rather than carving a path to the opposition’s end this season.
Through 25 games, head coach Darryl Sutter’s club has been at its worst in the first period. Its modest plus-one goal differential in the opening frame doesn’t stack up to the plus-six the Kings have recorded in both the second and third periods.
Such a glaring contrast is the result of the team’s sloppy puck possession—especially from the blue line. Too often, the Kings will stave off the opposition only to cough the puck up again because the defense can’t find the right outlet.
Note the glaring contrast in starts from a raw Corsi perspective:
It’s no coincidence that the better outing came with Martinez in the fold. He’s comfortable with the puck on his stick and makes quick decisions as forecheckers bear down on him.
Shifting from defense to offense as swiftly as possible is the Kings’ bread and butter, and they’re considerably more adept at it when the 27-year-old is playing.
With Brayden McNabb, Jamie McBain and Robyn Regehr, the puck would die along the wall, stalling the breakout as the forwards gained a head of steam. With Martinez, L.A. executes crisply, as short, accurate passes allow the team to move ahead and attack as a group.
When there are no viable passing options, he can simply skate away from opponents to either dump or carry the puck in.
The team’s offense as a whole is considerably better when he’s on the ice:
|Kings Defensemen on Offense|
Not only does Martinez facilitate the breakout, but once he's on offense, he fires pucks on goal in relentless fashion. No Kings defenseman is responsible for more Corsi events per 60 five-in-five minutes.
On the season, he's posted seven points and a plus-nine rating in 18 games.
On the lower pairings, however, L.A. has often floundered.
Martinez will provide stability in this regard, calming the troops so that the club can get on the same page and stick to the game plan from top to bottom.
Martinez is no shutdown defender. He ranks sixth on the blue line in goals against per 20 five-on-five minutes.
With that said, he’s a difference-maker for the Kings because he can tilt the ice in their favor. His ability to move the puck and generate offense has pushed him to first on the back end in goals-for percentage.
In a sense, much like the Kings overall, his knack for the possession game plays into his defense.
Once in coverage, he’s only decent. Martinez thrives by closing off the other team’s space before it can settle into an offensive posture. His pace and active stick create turnovers or 50-50 pucks where a less assertive player might sag off and focus on containment.
Watch how he holds his ground against the Vancouver Canucks at center ice, poking the puck off Alex Burrows' stick and then joining the rush for a three-on-two:
Plays of this nature don't necessarily end up on highlight reels, but they add up over time as the Kings attack in wave after wave until the opposition buckles under the pressure.
Come to think of it, Martinez's approach is similar to that of the Blackhawks defense: Use speed instead of size to nip the other team's offense in the bud.
It also happens to be especially beneficial against the Blackhawks, who rely on tempo and skill to rack up wins. Squads built this way give the Kings fits, but Martinez possesses the wheels to keep up.
In the offensive zone, he’ll pinch to extend shifts on attack and keep the opposition on its heels. In the neutral zone, he’ll get in tight and attempt to disrupt zone entries because he has the speed to recover if someone ekes by.
Though he seldom bowls guys over, his mere presence on their hip causes them to think twice and commit mistakes.
Against Winnipeg in October, the Jets opted for a stretch chip in order to buy time for their defensemen to start a line change. Martinez edges forward to pressure the man charged with tip-in duty, intercepts the puck and immediately sends it back in the other direction for an odd-man break:
Jeff Carter's deflected pass is the sexiest element of this sequence, but Tyler Toffoli's goal simply doesn't happen without Martinez flipping possession at L.A.'s blue line.
He’s essentially always in the thick of the action.
The same cannot be said about McBain or Regehr, who frequently concede the blue line. When he isn’t trying to smash opponents’ heads in, McNabb is also not all that great at contesting entries.
Martinez boasts the composure and aggressiveness to stand up at either blue line and force opponents to earn every inch of ice they get. That philosophy has led to a pair of Stanley Cups and will resurface—at least to some degree—with No. 27 in the mix.
Beyond Doughty and Muzzin—mostly Doughty, really—the defense has been a bit of a mess this season. Its numbers only appear stingy because of Jonathan Quick’s stellar performances in net.
Martinez will undoubtedly bolster the blue line.
Furthermore, his skill set—moving the puck, pushing the pace, closing gaps—becomes increasingly vital when glancing at the rest of the defensive corps.
McNabb, Regehr and Matt Greene are hard-nosed, defense-first figures who are useful against gritty opponents, but they need a ton of help against skill-based forwards who can exploit their shortcomings (mobility, hockey sense). Meanwhile, two-way defender Slava Voynov remains suspended indefinitely.
Without Martinez, the group looks slow and vulnerable. With him, the back end strikes some semblance of balance.
Whether he’s looking to shoot at a moment’s notice or taking away the other team’s space, Martinez’s presence will constitute a significant boon to the blue line now and for years to come.