EL SEGUNDO, CA — To say that defenseman Alec Martinez has struggled to secure a spot in the Los Angeles Kings lineup would be quite the understatement. In fact, staying in the lineup has been such a huge challenge for the 26-year-old, 6-1, 208-pound native of Rochester Hills, Michigan during his tenure with the Kings, that it just might be a candidate for David Letterman’s list of Top Ten Understatements, if such a list existed, of course.
Looking back to the 2011-12 season, Martinez was in and out of the lineup at the start of the season while Terry Murray was the team’s head coach, and little changed once Darryl Sutter took over in late December. But by the time the Kings hoisted the Stanley Cup on June 11, 2012, Martinez had become a fixture on the Kings’ blue line, playing in all twenty playoff games.
But during the abbreviated 2012-13 season, Martinez’ play dropped off—he was not the same player from the previous season’s run to a Stanley Cup Championship. Accordingly, he played in just 27 out of 48 regular season games, and in only seven playoff games.
Little changed for Martinez to begin the 2013-14 season. He was a healthy scratch in the first three games of the season, and then played in the Kings’ next five games. But after that, he sat out the next seven games.
At that point, injuries began to plague the team, and soon, defenseman Matt Greene would be lost to an upper body injury that landed him on injured reserve (retroactive to November 2, 2013).
Suddenly, Martinez had an opportunity to play, and to make a strong, positive impression on the coaching staff. But a wrench was thrown into the mix, as he has had to play on the right side, not his natural left side, while paired with veteran, stay-at-home defenseman Willie Mitchell.
Nevertheless, Martinez has been able to adapt.
“I feel like Mitchie and I have been playing pretty well of late,” said Martinez. “I feel pretty good, personally. It’s a little bit of an adjustment, playing on the right side, but Mitchie and I have gotten a lot of [repetitions] in, and we’ve done some extra work outside of practice. He’s helped me out a lot.”
“It’s tough sometimes, getting pucks on your off-side in the defensive zone and the neutral zone, especially the way some of these teams forecheck,” added Martinez. “It is tough, but at the end of the day, I’m a hockey player. I’ve got to be able to play both sides. It’s a bit of an adjustment, but I’ve played it before.”
“Actually, I’m kind of beginning to like [playing on the right side], a little bit. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself.”
If you’ve paid attention to media coverage of the Kings since Mitchell joined the team, you know that he is one of the best players in an interview because he will not only talk with reporters, but he actually provides valuable detail, well beyond clichés, and when asked about his partner on the blue line, he did not disappoint.
“I think we’ve been playing pretty well together,” said Mitchell. “We’ve been pretty happy. The only thing we’d like to do a little bit more is [contribute] a little more [offensively]. We’ve been together for 10-12 games now, and I think, maybe, we’ve been out for [just] two [goals] against. We’re pretty happy about that, but that’s something you don’t want to talk about when it’s going like that. You want to keep going—I think one was off Marty’s shoulder, too.”
“We complement each other,” added Mitchell. “Marty’s had a ton of chances during this stretch that he just hasn’t buried. It’s a good sign that he’s getting the offensive chances as well, and I think we’ve broken pressure pretty well. We’re going to have to continue to do that.”
Mitchell has played with four different partners this season, but has already played more games with Martinez than his other partners.
“It’s been that way for me this year,” he observed. “I’ve played with Marty, I’ve played with [Drew Doughty] a little bit, in certain situations, Slava [Voynov], of course, at the start of the year, and [Matt Greene], for a couple of games. There’s been lots of guys, but [Martinez] is the guy I’ve probably played with the most [this season]. I enjoy that. I enjoy having a partner who I know I’m playing with because I’m a read-and-react guy, so I kind of have a feel for his tendencies.”
“When you understand your partner like that, you’re a half second quicker, you’re that much better as a defender, and you’re that much better at breaking the puck out the other way,” he added. “It’s been great playing with him. It’s been good. Hopefully, we can keep it going.”
Mitchell also noted that Martinez seems to be enjoying playing on the right side.
“I think he’s enjoyed it,” Mitchell noted. “The style of play that we play—fairly aggressive at the blue line with our strong side defenseman, so it’s usually our first forward back, or our off-side defenseman going back to get the puck. When you go get the puck in a situation like that, a lot of times, it’s a forehand play, [as opposed to] when you’re playing your strong side, it’s a backhand play to bring it up the same side.”
“That’s allowed him to do some things very well, playing to some strengths of his,” Mitchell added. “I think it was a little bit of an adjustment early, but I think, if you ask him, he’ll tell you that he likes it. It’s allowed him to get a little more creative offensively. You’re always in a position to shoot the puck off of face-offs. It’s [usually] a one-timer.”
“You see all the ice when you’re on your off-side. Where it’s usually tough is pinching plays off along the wall, or sometimes, having to get the puck out, because you’re on your backhand. But [the way] we play, that defenseman really never goes back and gets the puck on his side. He’s always getting the puck on the opposite side.”
Head coach Darryl Sutter indicated that Martinez has done well on the right side, but he added that there is room for improvement.
“Marty’s done a good job, going over to his off-side, in terms of his defending,” said Sutter. “I think that his strength is his skating, and the next part of that is defending out of that. He still has some trouble defending the rush, playing on that side, as he did on the other side. But you know what? He’s a young guy, still inexperienced.”
“Mitchell and him talk a lot on the ice, which helps him,” added Sutter. “We’ll see how it goes.”
Sutter’s comments were certainly not the strong, enthusiastic vote of confidence, indicating that Martinez’ stock has risen in the eyes of the coaching staff. However, Sutter is generally reticent to praise his players in the media, so his words must be taken with several grains of salt.
In any case, it does seem that Martinez still has not locked up one of the top six defenseman spots in the lineup, and with Greene skating again, he could return at any time, giving the Kings an extra defenseman, and a dilemma that could push Martinez out of the lineup once again.
“I haven’t really thought about that yet,” he said. “I’ll deal with that when the time comes. For now, I’m just going to continue to focus, and try to play well.”
Nevertheless, the uncertainty can be frustrating for him, as it would be for any player.
“It can be frustrating at times, but I think it’s important not to think about it too much,” he emphasized. “Just play the game. If you worry about it too much, it’ll get the best of you. I just try to be a good teammate, try to help the team win, and focus on trying to become a better hockey player.”
“As an athlete, you want to play, be a part of the wins, and you want to go through all that with the team,” he added. “So it’s been good to be in [the lineup] for awhile.”
A player in Martinez’ position will usually say that he is a professional, so he has to deal with the frustration and not let it get the best of him. But players are human beings, and human nature dictates that every so often, that frustration is going to bubble up to the surface, and understandably so.
How does a player handle that?
“Everyone deals with things differently,” said Martinez. “For me, I try to work harder and channel my frustration towards becoming better. It’s important, when you’re away from the rink, to leave hockey at the rink, too. There’s different avenues to channel that frustration into something positive.”
“Not everything’s going to be perfect all the time,” added Martinez. “You’ve just got to roll with the punches, stay confident in your own game, and know that you can play, and play well. You’ve just got to be able to deal with it. It’s been a learning experience for me, but it’s a good life lesson.”
At 36 years old, Mitchell is a grizzled veteran of twelve seasons in the National Hockey League. He has seen a lot over that time, and he understands what Martinez is going through, maybe better than Martinez does.
“It’s not easy, and that’s a product of [the Kings] being a good team,” said Mitchell. “Our defense corps is really strong. There’s guys like Marty, who’s young, he’s looking over his shoulder, he’s in and out of the lineup, or there’s older guys like me, who are playing a little bit less—I’d like to play more.”
“Everyone has their own competitions and challenges,” added Mitchell. “We wouldn’t get to this point if you didn’t want to play more, or play every day, in Marty’s case. We all have those things. You use those as motivation to be on your game, be the best you can which is going to help the team.”
“It’s not a selfish thing to say, by any means, that you want to be in the lineup every night, or that you want to play more. That’s the passion and fire you want in a player, and he’s no different.”
Mitchell indicated that Martinez’ confidence may be on the rise.
“It’s not easy when you’re looking over your shoulder, and I think, for Marty, too, he’d be the first one to tell you that he has to have the belief in himself,” Mitchell noted. “I think he’s got that, in the last ten or twelve games.”
“He’s starting to believe in himself,” Mitchell added. “He knows he’s in the lineup every night, and he believes in what he does—he skates the puck tremendously well. He’s super fast, he’s got a great shot. It’s just believing in himself, and that he can make a difference out there.”
Mitchell also indicated that in the past, perhaps Martinez was trying too hard to make an impression.
“Going to a new team, [or maybe] you want to impress a new coach, [or] coming off an injury, you want to impress and show everyone, ‘hey, I’m back to my old self.’ That even happens at 36 years old when I came back this year,” Mitchell explained. “You want to impress and say, ‘hey, I’m back to myself,’ and sometimes, that can go the other way.”
“At the start of the year, I wasn’t playing my best hockey,” Mitchell elaborated. “A big reason was that I care a lot, and I’m not saying that you can care too much. Care is good, passion is good, but sometimes, you can try too much, and when you try too much, you overextend yourself. You don’t stay within your game, and do what you’re good at.”
“Whether you’re coming off an injury, or whether you’re coming to a new team, or there’s a new coach [such as when Sutter was hired], for a guy who’s in and out of the lineup, that creeps in, no matter what. It’s just a matter of controlling that as best you can, and just playing your game, not trying to impress, so to speak. When you try to impress, you try to do a little too much. That gets you off your game, and not playing to your strengths.”
Going forward, Martinez seems to know that all he can do is work to improve his game, and do what the coaches expect of him. Everything else will take care of itself.
“There’s a constant dialogue between players and the coaching staff,” he said. “I’ve had enough experience—I’ve played with them long enough. I know what they expect of me. There’s always things you can get better at, and that’s what I try to focus on.”
“Everyone wants to play, [but that’s] the way it goes,” he added. “That’s the nature of pro sports. It’s a business. That’s when you’ve got to focus on yourself, and make sure that you become a better hockey player, even when you’re not in the lineup.”
Raw Audio Interviews
(Extraneous material and dead air have been removed; click on the arrow to listen):
Alec Martinez (4:57)
Willie Mitchell (6:53)
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