EL SEGUNDO, CA — Since he was acquired by the Los Angeles Kings on February 24, 2012, forward Jeff Carter has had the desired impact, scoring five goals and adding two assists for seven points in nine games (through games played on March 15, 2012).
His presence also gives the Kings two dangerous lines for opposing teams to deal with, something they have lacked for what seems like an eternity. This has opened up space for center Anze Kopitar, who has four goals and five assists for nine points in the last eight games.
The Kings’ power play, which was ranked near the bottom of the National Hockey League rankings for most of the season, has improved to 17th, with a 16.5% rating, again, much of that attributed to Carter’s presence.
Meanwhile, minding his own business, so to speak, back on the blue line, has been defenseman Alec Martinez, who was a spectator for most games, out of the lineup as a healthy scratch, after Darryl Sutter took over as head coach on December 20, 2011.
Martinez was a healthy scratch for seven straight games in the latter half of December (which includes three games prior to Sutter’s hiring), and for nine consecutive contests in January. But he began to work his way back into the lineup in early February, and aside from being a healthy scratch for two games in mid-February, he has been a fixture on the Kings’ blue line ever since.
If you listen to Sutter, the biggest reason Martinez is back is that defenseman Jack Johnson is now playing for another team.
“The big difference there was when Jack was traded, because he was better on the left side than the right side, but we moved him to the right side, in order to get Martinez some ice time,” said Sutter. “Once we brought Slava [Voynov] back up, we wanted him on the right side, and we wanted Martinez on the third pair. So it has to do with performance and partners.”
Veteran defenseman Willie Mitchell pointed out that a spot opening up on the blue line was bound to give Martinez confidence going forward.
“After Jack was moved, he knew he was going to be in the lineup every night,” Mitchell explained. “You start to find your rhythm, you start to find your confidence, and you’re not trying to jam everything you think you are into a small window. You just take what the game is giving you, and not force it. That’s probably been the biggest thing for Marty.”
“The fact that he knows he’s going to be in the lineup, pretty much every night—it’s pretty tough,” Mitchell elaborated. “Earlier in a player’s career, when you’re in and out of the lineup, trying to show what you can do, in a short window of time, you often try to do too much. You get caught, you make mistakes.”
To be sure, the old numbers game had a lot to do with Martinez’ situation. However, when you come right down to it, Sutter’s mention of “performance and partners,” especially the “performance” part of the equation, is the true factor.
“Marty’s a very good skater, and he’s a smart player,” said veteran defenseman Rob Scuderi. “He brings his skating into the game, getting up into the offense. He’s a good power play player. He adds a good depth to our defense that I know I don’t have. Marty brings that [offensive side] to the table.”
“I think he might be making smarter decisions with the puck,” added Scuderi. “Sometimes it’s tough, when you have that type of talent, to realize that the best play is, sometimes, no play, like when you’re trying to make something out of nothing, when it’s just not there.”
Martinez admitted that, plain and simple, it was on him to improve.
“Partially, it was a numbers issue, and, partially, I needed to be better,” he admitted. “I’ve been trying to focus on staying—I guess, on just when I see a play, make it. I had to get a little bit better, start making plays, and start playing with that confidence again.”
“Overall, there’s things that I can work on,” he added. “In the defensive zone, it’s closing on guys quickly. That’s something Darryl’s really [stressed] since he’s been here, little things like that. I’ve been working on [things], I’d like to think [the work] has been paying off.”
Martinez has been working extensively with assistant coach John Stevens, who is responsible for the defensemen.
“I’ve been working with John a lot on video, and things like that,” said Martinez. “We’ve been talking a lot, and that’s helped.”
“We’ve changed some things up, system-wise, so it’s adapting to that, getting a little more aggressive, and making my reads quicker,” added Martinez. “Hesitation, in this game, leads to mistakes, and goals against. It’s just being comfortable in the system, getting on pucks early, getting on guys early. That’s definitely helped out a lot.”
Where Martinez has been most noticeable, and for the right reasons, is on the power play.
“He’s got a good shot on the power play, and adding that to our mix has been a huge help,” Mitchell noted. “In this game, now, you have quite a bit of pressure [at the blue line] when you have the puck. All you really have time for is to get it past the first guy. Sometimes, there’s layers down in behind, and it might hit that, but if you get [the puck] down to that layer in front of the net, and it hits a pants leg, and falls down, now you’ve got a whack at it. What it creates is broken plays in front of the net. As a defender, those are the toughest plays because there’s no read. You have to [sort it all out very quickly].”
“If you get [the puck] down there, you never know,” Mitchell added. “It hits a skate, hits a leg, then it’s broken coverage, and that gives our offensive guys just enough [time] to get a shot on goal, or a goaltender to not be squared up to the puck. That’s how you score in this league, by getting pucks to the front of the net.”
What has made Martinez so noticeable on the power play is his rather uncanny ability to get the puck to the net from the blue line, a skill that has eluded Kings defensemen for much of the season.
“That’s something the best offensive defensemen do,” said Scuderi. “They just find a way to get [the puck to the front of the net]. It doesn’t have to be super hard. As long as you get it past that first forward, usually, the puck hits something. It bounces in front of your forward. Good things happen when you get pucks and bodies to the front of the net, and he’s one of those guys who consistently gets it there.”
“Every single guy is lined up in the [shooting] lane, but Marty always seems to find a way to get his shot through,” added Scuderi.
Martinez emphasized that defensemen, especially in today’s NHL, are rarely going to score on shots from the blue line, so the strategy has had to change, or, at least, it should.
“I know, for the most part, you’re not going to score from up there [at the blue line],” he said. “This is the NHL. The goalies are good, so you’re not going to score [except on rare occasions] from that distance. But if I can get it in there, [and we] can get a rebound with some traffic in front—[right wing Dustin] Brown scored a couple—we’ve connected [on the power play a couple of times lately]. If I can get it there, and give them the opportunity, I like our chances.”
“You’re not necessarily trying to pick a corner from all the way out there,” he added. “You’re trying to put it on his pads, or something like that, just to create a rebound. Sometimes, it doesn’t have to be a real hard shot. You’ve just got to get it there, give it a chance.”
“It’s something we work on every day at practice. I just try to get pucks to the net, and give the forwards an opportunity to bang home a rebound.”
Being a fixture on the blue line, along with his presence on the Kings’ second power play unit, is all the proof needed that it is more about performance than anything else for Martinez.
“We’re giving him some power play opportunities, but it is a reward,” said Sutter. “I’ll tell you exactly what I tell him: ‘you want to play on the power play? Then you do things right [during] five-on-five [play].’”
“He has to be a really good competitor, because that’s the only time he has a problem,” added Sutter. “The game is about being a good competitor.”
Given the fact that he has played in 16 of the Kings’ last 18 games, has not been out of the lineup since February 18, and that he has established a spot on the power play, it appears that Martinez is becoming the five-on-five player, and the competitor Sutter is looking for.
Raw Audio Interviews: Los Angeles Kings Morning Skate, March 16, 2012
(Extraneous material and dead air have been removed):
Rob Scuderi (3:10)
Alec Martinez (3:24)
Darryl Sutter (7:02)
Willie Mitchell (5:34)
Tickets for the Kings’ upcoming home games against the Nashville Predators (March 17, 7:30 PM – Predators vs. Kings), the San Jose Sharks (March 17, 7:30 PM – Sharks vs. Kings) as well as for other games on their schedule, are available from Barry’s Tickets, an official partner of the Los Angeles Kings. Use the code, “Royalty010” to get a 10 percent discount on their “Best Value” tickets.
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