There hasn’t been any determination made yet as to whether the NHL will resume its season anytime soon, and what that means for the New York Islanders, is they might have seen Matt Martin suit up in orange and blue for the last time.
This season marked the final year of Martin’s four-year, $10 million contract which he signed when he left the Isles for Toronto, and the organization took back when g.m. Lou Lamoriello re-acquired him back on the second day of free agency in 2018.
Martin, 30, saw a significant drop in playing time this season — only skating in 55 games — with the emergence of his possible replacement, 26-year-old Ross Johnston. Johnston is the air apparent to Martin — the guy who protects his teammates and is willing to drop the gloves. Also, in terms of money, Johnston has become a much cheaper option for the role that Martin has taken on the past decade.
Let’s talk about that decade for a minute.
It was one that saw the franchise turn the tide both on and off the ice. It was one that saw a franchise re-invigorate their fan base after years of torment. And it was one this franchise’s heart and soul wore a number 17 on his sweater.
From the moment he debuted in 2009, Martin embodied everything that was Long Island and what it meant to wear the Islander crest — tough, gritty, passionate, hard-working. He became a part of a team who was in a rebuild from ground one and needed someone who would take no prisoners.
Some might not want to remember those days because of how awful they were for the organization, but what some seem to forget is they were watching a young man and fan-favorite begin to grow up right before their very eyes.
He protected John Tavares. He protected Kyle Okposo. He protected Michael Grabner. He protected all his teammates because that was his role.
Martin was never the most skilled guy or a big-point producer; his best season came in 2015-16 when he recorded 19 points in 80 games. No, the Windsor, ON native was known for his physical, grinding style of play.
When the Islanders signed him to a four-year deal before the start of the 2012-13 season, no one knew it would help shape the development of one of the most notorious trios who would define the next several years for the club, The Identity Line. That’s what it’s referred to as now, but in the beginning, it was called the E-MC2 Line and eventually was dubbed “The Best Fourth Line in Hockey” by legendary hockey broadcaster Don Cherry.
Playing on a line with his best friends on the team — Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck — Martin helped wreak havoc in the opponent’s zone with his intense forechecking and willingness to throw his body at anything that moves. Opponents despised that line, as the clip below demonstrates.
The Islanders had a renaissance like year that ’14-15 campaign, and it was built on the foundation of that fourth line. Martin alone set a new NHL record by totaling 382 hits that year, the most by a single player in an season.
Martin and his line’s dominance was on display once again the following season. He led the league in hits again with 365 while the Islanders again recorded another 100-plus point season. The Isles made it to the second round of the playoffs, falling in five to the Tampa Bay Lightning. A decision needed to be made by then-GM Garth Snow whether to re-sign Martin.
He didn’t, letting him go to Toronto for the next four seasons. That day felt like the “heart” of the organization was ripped away.
Missing Martin’s presence was definitely felt early on and for a majority of the year. The team looked listless and fragile without him, and his former linemates, Clutterbuck and Cizikas, struggled to maintain that identity and heavy play. Sure they tried to replicate Martin with Jason Chimera, and Chimera did score 20 goals — albeit most of them in the second half of the year — but they could never replace him.
It’s why the following season, when there were rumors that Martin was on the trading block, many Islanders fans pleaded for Snow to bring him back.
Snow didn’t, but a few months later, Lamoriello did.
Lamoriello, in the aftermath of the franchise losing captain John Tavares, knew he needed to bring back some character to the locker room. The impact was felt immediately from Martin’s side and the team’s side.
“Coming back to the Islanders is exciting for me,” Martin told Newsday after the trade. “In my heart, I was hoping for this.”
With Martin back in the fold — and reunited with Clutterbuck and Cizikas — the Isles regained their identity.
Martin was again in the top-five in hits, threw in 14 points in 67 games, and the Islanders stunned the NHL with 103 points and a second-round appearance in the playoffs.
When he’s come here, he’s been exactly what I saw four years ago, and that’s refreshing,” Trotz said about Martin in the middle of last season. “When you’re coaching against Matt Martin, you could see he was an all-in type of player. You could see that he brings a physical element. You could see that he has good hockey sense. You could see that he is a big part of the energy of the team and that line.”
— Eyes on Isles (@eyesonislesFS) February 2, 2019
As mentioned earlier, this season was a little different for Martin. But, he still was his old-hitting self — 242 hits in 55 games.
The need to get younger and more skilled upfront, though, might draw the end for Martin and the Isles. That dynamic aside, it doesn’t take away how Martin represented himself as an Islander.
Off the ice, all the charitable efforts, team events, and even during the difficult times, Martin was always there with his trademark smile. And that reflected how he went about his business on the ice.
He wed Sydney Esiason, Boomer’s daughter, last summer and has become Long Island royalty; the two are expecting their first child, a girl, this summer.
That’s just one of the small parts of what he’s meant to this franchise for a long time.
If he comes back in a different uniform next season, he’ll get a heroes welcome. He deserves it.
The Islanders became a different team and organization for that matter with Martin, and no one can deny that.