Martin's Revival Came with Return to Defensive Roots
PITTSBURGH -- Paul Martin has found his comfort zone on the ice.
The journey was neither easy nor pleasant, at times; but the results for the Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman are simply stunning. After a career year during the regular season -- 23 points and a plus-14 in 34 regular-season games -- Martin has been a point-per game player in the Stanley Cup Playoffs with seven points in seven games.
He looks to add to that total Friday night when the Penguins host Ottawa in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Semifinal series at Consol Energy Center (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC, RDS). Pittsburgh leads the best-of-7 series, 1-0.
"I know the type of player I am and what I bring to the table, and I'm comfortable and confident with that and that is the way it is going to be," Martin said.
That confidence is a far cry from the player that had little idea of his role -- and sometimes, even his ability -- during a 2011-12 season that was the most difficult of his career.
The numbers were not very different from his first year with the Penguins, but they were met by disappointment from the fans and media, who expected more from the high-priced free-agent import from the New Jersey Devils.
In a way, Martin was a victim of his own skill set. He is one of the best skaters in the League and his transition game is at an elite level. Those qualities paired with the top-end offensive talent sprinkled throughout the Penguins' lineup suggested that Martin would be a scoring machine.
"Coming here after Jersey, I think everyone wanted me to be a different player and put up 50 or 60 points, and I'm not that type of player," Martin told NHL.com. "Here, when you get on the power play and spend time with those guys, you are going to get points. I think I just got back to my work ethic in the defensive end and taking care of that, and the offensive came out of that instead of trying to be someone I'm not."
That realization, as freeing as it was, was not arrived at easily.
Martin spent most of the last season under constant duress from a growing legion of critics who were dismayed by the porous state of the Penguins' defense and saw Martin as the poster boy for that ineptitude.
There were calls for him to be traded. Some even suggested he could just be bought out of his contract. It was an ugly time for a player that had known nothing but success throughout his career.
"There were a lot of things that didn't go right for us last year," Pittsburgh forward Craig Adams said. "We weren't a particularly good defensive team, and that's hard for the defensemen when you play that way. He certainly wasn't only one that was negatively affected."
But Martin was the one that took it the hardest, especially after the Penguins flamed out in a ugly first-round loss to the Philadelphia Flyers in a series dominated by defensive-zone breakdowns by a Pittsburgh team that was considered by many a safe bet to make the final four of the tournament.
"It definitely wasn't a lot of fun," Martin said. "For that year-and-a-half, all it takes is for somebody to write an article and then you start to believe it and you think you are not playing great, and then it is not as much fun coming to the rink. That was the biggest difference. At that point, I wasn't enjoying it all.
"Going through what I did, I think I appreciated it more. It made me a better person and player going through that."
Martin worked out hard during the summer and spent a good deal of time trying to reset himself mentally. There were several conversations with defensive coach Todd Reirdan during the summer, as well as talks with other members of the staff and his teammates.
He came into the season physically bigger and mentally stronger, but the renaissance did not take full hold until coach Dan Bylsma decided to change Martin's role, returning him to a shut-down defenseman and moving him to his more natural right side on a pairing with hard-hitting, defense-first Brooks Orpik.
"I think also his being paired up with Brooks Orpik and being a shut-down pair for us immediately was a big role for our team and a big factor for our team," Bylsma told NHL.com. "It was a role he was ready for. I won't say he grew into it because that is something he has been in his career. But the confidence level of doing that job four our team, being a big role for our team, was evident right from the start of the season and he's been a big factor for us all year."
Despite the suggestion that he is ideally suited to be an offensive defenseman because of his skill set, it is the role of shut-down defender that most appeals to him. It is that role -- fashioned in New Jersey as an apprentice under several all-world defensemen -- that established him as a star in this League.
It is a role he longed to inhabit again, and he jumped at the opportunity when it was presented by the coaching staff.
"The season started well, so you get some of that confidence back and continue to play hard," Martin said. "We switched up some of the pairings, and I think pairing me with Brooks and putting me on the right side, where I played most of my career, especially in Jersey as a shut-down pair, has been big for me. The offense has come with playing good defense."
And the smile has returned as Martin finds the trips to work far more enjoyable than last year.
Martin notices the difference and so do many of his teammates. They also notice -- and welcome -- the results that have come with it.
"[Paul]'s played outstanding hockey this year," Adams said. "People have ups and downs; that's just the nature of the game. I think he probably took more heat than he deserved, but I think he's brought his game up a level this year and I think he is one of the top defensemen."