In an effort to improve their overall team defense prior to last season, the Pittsburgh Penguins made two significant investments on their blue line by signing two of the top free agent defenseman that were available on the open market -- Paul Martin, who had spent the previous six years of his career with the New Jersey Devils, and Zbynek Michalek coming off a five-year stint with the Phoenix Coyotes.
Combined, the Penguins committed a total of $45 million over five years to the two rearguards, and the results on the ice spoke for themselves in their first year with the team. The Penguins went from being 20th in the NHL in goals allowed during the 2009-10 season, all the way up to 6th best in 2010-11, while allowing nearly a half-goal fewer per game. That's no small improvement, and the additions of Martin and Michalek were a vital part of it.
Through the first 19 games of this season, Martin has had an up-and-down campaign and seems to be facing a growing amount of criticism from the Penguins' fan base for his minus-10 rating entering play on Saturday. That is currently the worst mark on the team and the second-worst mark in the NHL among all defensemen, ahead of only Colorado's Jan Hejda. When you're counting $5 million against the salary cap and near the bottom of the NHL in any category it's going to draw some attention, and hey, every fan-base needs its whipping boy.
So what's wrong with Paul Martin, and is he playing as poorly as the usually misleading plus/minus would suggest?
Nothing that can't be fixed, and not exactly.
So why is his plus/minus currently getting slaughtered? In its simplest terms, plus/minus, in general, and as honestly as it can be said, sucks as a useful measuring stick for the quality of play from a player, and offers little context in to what is going on with the player in question (who is he playing against? What situation is he playing in? Etc.). So let's try and add some context, if we can, and try to better understand his role with two main points that are, in a way, connected to one another.
1) The Penguins aren't scoring goals when Martin is on the ice
And yes, as a player that's on the ice, Martin does have to take some responsibility for this. But it's not going to continue. At least, it shouldn't be expected to continue.
During 5-on-5 play this season the Penguins have scored just four goals with Martin on the ice, which is an extremely low number, especially when you consider the number of minutes he plays. A lack of goals at even strength will obviously have a negative impact on a players rating, and this should not be expected to continue, for this reason: The Penguins, as a team, are shooting just a little over 2 percent when Martin is on the ice during 5-on-5 play, a rate that is unsustainably low over the course of the season.
Of the 536 players that have played a minimum of 10 games this season, only 12 of them have been on the ice for a lower shooting percentage. Look at it another way: If you go back to last season and take the players that played at least half the season in the NHL (40 games), the lowest on-ice shooting percentage belonged to Anaheim's George Parros at 2.54 percent, and he was one of only two players (the other was New Jersey's Adam Mair) that were on the ice for a team shooting percentage of below 3 percent. Over the past four years Martin's teams in Pittsburgh and New Jersey have shot no worse than 7.4 percent over the course of the season with him on the ice.
When you're talking about a player as talented as Martin, playing on a team that scores as often as the Penguins do, eventually, over time, these percentages are going to start work out for Martin, especially when the Penguins generate as many shots on goal as they do with him on the ice.
2) He's playing more minutes than any other player on the team, and he's being asked to play some of the "toughest" minutes on the team
Due to various injuries, including Michalek and Brooks Orpik, as well as a two-game suspension to Kris Letang, Martin has played significantly more minutes than any other player on the team. Entering Saturday he's at 464 overall minutes, 351 of which have come during even-strength play. Letang is the only other player on the team to crack the 300-minute mark at even-strength, while no other player is over 285. Not only is he playing more often than everybody else, he's playing in significantly more difficult situations.
You can tell a lot about a player, and what that player's coach thinks of him, by the situations he's put into. This season Dan Bylsma and his staff are giving Martin some of the tougher assignments in the NHL, and definitely the toughest assignments on the team. Consider his QualComp (Quality of Competition -- the higher the number, the tougher the competition) numbers and the limited number of Offensive Zone face-offs he's been on the ice for.
|Assignments For Penguins Defensemen|
|Player||Even-Strength Minutes||QualComp||Offensive Zone Starts %||On-Ice Shooting %||+/-|
The only Penguins defensemen that's seen tougher competition is Orpik, while no other defensemen has started fewer shifts in the offensive zone.
Martin's game has definitely hit a bit of a rough patch over the past couple of weeks, and he's had his moments where he's been beat by opposing players one-on-one. But there's also a lot of things working against him right now, including some bad luck (hello, unsustainably low shooting percentage) and playing some of the heaviest minutes on the team, and playing a lot of them.
That's an extremely difficult role. Playing against the other team's best players and starting most of your shifts in your own zone (defensive zone faceoffs are dangerous) is a difficult task for any player, and will have an impact on your ability to score, as well as the other team's ability to score against you. Players that play the most minutes against the best players in the toughest spots will see the more goals scored against them and have a more difficult time scoring goals.
Take another look at the above table and look at the quality of players Matt Niskanen, for example, plays against, and the number of shifts he gets to start in the offensive zone. He's a team-best plus-five this season. No disrespect to Niskanen intended, but there isn't a coach or GM in the NHL that would take him over Martin, now, or at any other point. Give Martin those minutes and assignments, and vice versa, and see what their ratings look like.
I went back and looked at every goal that's been scored against the Penguins this season that would count against his plus/minus, and there's some pretty fascinating things in there. On at least two of them the Penguins were stopped on prime scoring chances at the other end of the ice before the play went back the other way and resulted in a goal at the other end. On one of them his defensive partner, Michalek, fell down on the opening face-off in Winnipeg which resulted in a flukey turnover -- and goal -- eight seconds into regulation.
None of this is likely to change the opinion of the person that takes his plus/minus rating as gospel, but if you think he's currently the second-worst defenseman in the NHL, or somehow not worth the cap hit to the Penguins, you're simply wrong.
The Penguins defense is a critical part of their success, and Martin is, and will continue to be, a key cog in that machine.
(Statistical data via BehindTheNet)
Photo: Getty Images