January 24, 2018 | 2:53pm ET
BY Dennis Bernstein, The Fourth Period
A MAN WITHOUT A LETTER
LOS ANGELES, CA -- It takes at least 23 men to navigate the most difficult championship path in professional sports that culminates with a Stanley Cup championship. Since the salary cap was instituted, there’s no longer hoarding of talent, a caste system has been created and as there are disparate talent levels, there are different levels of leadership.
There are the clear-cut leaders, the likes of Jonathan Toews and Sidney Crosby and in supporting roles are the trusted veterans who wear the “A” with Patrice Bergeron and Joe Thornton most prominent of the current vintage.
And then there are those who lead without any alphabetical designations.
In Los Angeles, the Kings have had the good fortune of having Trevor Lewis and Alec Martinez as locker room fixtures during the championship seasons, as well as the last three and a half seasons of play. While both trusted leaders, they’ve taken different paths to become part of the Kings establishment. Lewis, the Swiss army knife type who can handle all three forward positions, has been so reliable on the bottom-six that few remember he was a first-round pick (17th overall) in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft.
Martinez arrived with much less fanfare as a fourth-round pick in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft and is symbolic of an underlying strength of the organization over the past decade – the ability to find diamonds in the roughs in the later rounds of the draft.
Debuting in the 2009-10 season, Martinez grew as the team grew towards its championship zenith, initially as a third pair defenseman in the Kings first title run and then elevating to the clutch performer level during the 2014 run by winning an epic Western Conference Final with an overtime Game 7 goal and backing it up with a goal that Kings fans will forever call “Jazz Hands,” a nod to his, umn, unique celebration after the Game 5 double overtime goal that earned Los Angeles its second title.
In a perfect world, Martinez would be a third pair puck-moving defenseman with few rivals, but as the Kings continue to search for that elusive top four defenseman, Martinez has matured into a quality defender with only Drew Doughty logging more ice time this season (Martinez 23:43 TOI places him in the Top 30 among all defenseman). Though his offensive production won’t approach his career high of 39 points last season (9 goals, 30 assists), he is one of Los Angeles’ core 3D through both his play and his bargain of a contract – a $4 million per year cap hit that takes him to unrestricted free agency at the end of the 2020-21 season at 34 years old.
His value to this transitional team was evident this week both in actions and words. He addressed the Kings’ struggles during a six-game losing streak and then went out and did something about it, fashioning his best performance of the season in the 4-2 win over the Rangers that made the flight to Vancouver far less stressful. His two primary assists and defensive zone play, thwarting multiple Rangers scoring chances was a primary factor that rightly earned him the night’s first star.
Martinez is one cool cat, never seems too high or low and rarely turns away a request to talk. In his ninth season with the team, he’s seen it all and was at ease when discussing his team’s biggest valley and the action plan to get back to winning.
“I don’t think our confidence has ever wavered,” said the former Miami of Ohio Redhawk. “We can sit around and talk about playing better but the fact of the matter is we have to go out and do it.”
Like the rest of the veterans on the roster, Martinez bought in quickly to John Stevens’ program and though this stretch gave back most of the standings currency bought with a hot start, he remains true to the process.
“We have a good game plan if we execute it the way that we’re capable of. We’re very confident and the fact of the matter is we haven’t executed during this stretch. We need to put a full game effort together – going back to that Calgary game, we had a very good first period and for whatever the reason we haven’t been playing well.”
Unlike the fans who wanted Stevens fired or Rob Blake to magically engineer trades, Martinez leans on his experience of nine seasons for a reality check.
“You look at the standings, we were up near the top and now we’re on the outside (of a playoff spot) looking in. It just goes to show you that in the Western Conference and in our division, it’s been that way since I’ve been here. These points are crucial, and things are so tight that you can not play one night and drop two or three spots and we’re throwing them away right now.”
Remaining positive, Martinez looks back at the season’s early days as to why things were successful.
“We got contributions from everyone and played a strong team game, we weren’t having lulls in our play. You look at the level of play we’ve produced in the second period of games, they haven’t gone very well. The common theme was that everyone was playing well, we don’t need one or two guys to play great, we need everyone to be good.”
Regarding the tightly bunched Western Conference, Alec admits to more than the occasional glance at the divisional and conference table.
“The standings are everywhere, we have them posted in the locker room,” he said. “The standings are important from a general awareness stand point, but I don’t over-think them daily because things can happen when you don’t play. You can focus on it but you can’t nit-pick every moment of every day. It’s like John says, ‘if you focus on the process instead of the result then the result will take care of itself,’ and I think the standings will run parallel with that. If we focus on our team game every night, we will get the 96 to 100 points and the historical data shows you’re going to be sitting inside the playoffs.”
A defined path to the post season will be through improved play against the Western Conference, a must given the majority of games remaining on the schedule (26 West, 9 East). The New York victory improved their record to 16-6-1 against the Eastern Conference but if they don’t reverse their field from their 9-11-4 record against the West and 5-8-3 mark inside the Pacific, they will miss the post-season for the second straight season. Martinez thinks one facet of their game needs to be improved and not surprisingly, it’s one that has been the team’s signature.
“I’ve noticed that too, maybe it’s different styles of play between the conferences. One thing we need to do is play a heavier game especially against our divisional opponents. I’m not sure that’s exactly the issue (is the disparity) but I do know we have to be harder to play against. But with that said, I’m very confident in this group and quite frankly, we’ve probably been in a worse position than this. I don’t want to be hypocritical here but we might two or three points out of second place in the Pacific. There’s no need to panic but there is a need to look at our game and address some issues.”
Stevens has referenced an increasing level of frustration in his team as the losses mounted, a frustration from not being able to make a winning play in a big spot that turns an impending loss into a win. Martinez affirmed that emotion has penetrated the locker room throughout a long January, but it has not divided the team.
“It’s not that we don’t want to do well, it’s not that we don’t want to win or don’t know what to do to win,” he said. “We know what to do and we still have a good attitude in the room, that is not an issue. I don’t care what you’re doing – if you’re trying to start the car and the engine won’t turn over, that’s frustrating too. The guys have a good mindset and they’re confident – we are a positive group and I have the confidence we will.”
As for the Kings search for additional blueline help – I refer to the need as “Fourth Musketeer” – the consensus is that GM Rob Blake is seeking a right defenseman as he waits for the second go-round of the player thought to be the second coming, Paul LaDue.
The rookie defenseman was not the first defensive recall from Ontario this season, Kevin Gravel grasped the opportunity and has been good but not great and his destiny may be a solid 5-6 defenseman. Oscar Fantenberg has fallen out of favor with Stevens and has smoothed the planned path for a LaDue return. But if LaDue fails to deliver on his second go-round (and it will come in a big spot), it may move Blake’s sense of urgency further north. He’s tinkered with small moves – with the latest being moving out the unproductive goaltender Jeff Zatkoff on Monday – but there has been little chatter about a major move to shore up the defense.
Here’s a case where statistics can fool you: the Kings are the No.1 defensive team in the League, so it’s fair to question if the team needs to make a substantial move on the blueline. If you’ve paid attention to Stevens’ comments during the good times, he noted on more than one occasion that Jonathan Quick had bailed the team out. Riding his sharp play and getting contributions across the board led to success and masked the talent gap that exists outside the core 3D. Quick has struggled of late, surrendering marginal goals early in games and making the case for an upgrade on the blueline to help suppress the opposition’s scoring chances.
Martinez is a left shot playing the right side, not a rarity but not the norm in the NHL. I asked if he would be amenable to a move his left side to accommodate a quality right-handed shot right defenseman.
“I just do what the coaches tell me,” he said. “I like playing the right side and at this point I’ve played over half my career on the right side. It has its advantages and disadvantages; a lot of times players are in your blindside of the off side but that can be remedied by taking mental pictures and mental notes. At the end of the day, everyone has confidence in Rob and if he sees something that makes us a better hockey club and will play wherever I’m needed to play. I’ve played both sides this season, sometimes every other shift.”
HERE AND THERE...
- Asked Anze Kopitar, a big Tom Brady fan, for a Super Bowl pick, he smiled and said, “Come on, really?”
- Suggestion to John Stevens on an extra mix to the blender that’s been set on medium lately: Give Jonny Brodzinski a run with Michael Amadio to see what the pair can do. Amadio had his best game as a King in their Rangers win and you can take your choice of scratching Marian Gaborik or Torrey Mitchell.
- I do a semi-weekly podcast with John Brewster of Duck Calls radio fame, click here to check it out.
- On the radio side, I will be co-hosting the All-Star Game pre-game show with Nick Alberga on SiriusXM NHL Network Radio this Sunday in addition to appearances on TSN Radio Winnipeg this Wednesday at 11:30AM CT, as well as my regular 1:30 PM ET Friday spot with Chris “Knuckles” Nilan on TSN 690 Montreal.