Leafs sign Matt Martin to ride shotgun for youngsters


Leafs sign Matt Martin to ride shotgun for youngsters

Leafs sign Matt Martin to ride shotgun for youngsters




Lou Lamoriello and Matt Martin tried their best not to use the term ‘bodyguard’ for the free agent’s role on the Maple Leafs.

But that’s a vital part of the 6-foot-3 left winger’s duties, for at least this season. With Auston Matthews, William Nylander and perhaps Mitch Marner and Connor Brown joining a young team that already lacks size, the Leafs just brought in one of the most enthusiastic hitters in the NHL, who tied for the second-most fights last year in a league where fisticuffs are being phased out.

A miffed coach Mike Babcock said after a game last season, when his team was roughed up, that he’d address the issue in 2016-17 and Lamoriello delivered for him on Friday. The cost for Martin was four years at US$2.5 million annually, after the Windsor native’s time with the New York Islanders ran out and he was pursued by a number of suitors, including some Leafs rivals in the Eastern Conference.

High-priced protection?

“I don’t know what word you call it, but it is certainly support for (the kids) to feel freer to do the things they do best,” Lamoriello said.

“Certainly, he has size and strength and we feel his skating is very good. I’ve had the experience of (his New Jersey) teams play against Matt a good number of years. Our staff liked him, our coaching staff liked him and that was the most important thing.”

Lamoriello shrugged off the price and term. He was probably looking for a stay-at-home defencemen as well, such as Kris Russell or James Wisniewski, but this was a lean year for such prizes and the Leafs still have to be careful with cap space.

“Everything that happens these days is too much money. I don’t see many contracts that weren’t too much money (in Friday’s jaw-dropping opening hour of free agency $334 million was spent). But when you feel there’s a need and there’s a short supply and you don’t mind the best player available for that, then you have to make that decision.”

Martin’s appeal to the Leafs was obvious: Rugged play, but durable enough to miss only a handful of games the past few years, plus enough skill to get a career-high 19 points last season. He earned lots of kudos for his work getting the Isles into playoff contention. He is also a solid citizen away from the rink and was in the running for the NHL’s Foundation Player Award for fund-raising and charitable work.

“New York was seven years and a big part of my life,” Martin said. “But coming to the Leafs is a big step and I’m confident it’s going to be a pleasure. I’m looking forward to getting started.”

With four years of more than 100 penalty minutes, Martin is no angel on the ice.

“In terms of being a protector, I’m not sure if that’s the right word. I want to go out and be effective. In talking to the Leafs, I think I can play their game, not just fight. But I’m not someone who likes liberties being taken with my teammates. I’m there to free up space to help them.”

He sees a parallel with the rise of the Isles’ youth element to what the Leafs are trying to do and a chance to make it happen nearer to his hometown. Playing under a coach of Babcock’s stature was another reason to sign.

“You get more and more experience once you’re in those situations,” he said of the Isles’ tracking upwards. “As you get older, you start to understand not to let emotions or the media get the best of you. Stay the course.

“Mike factored into my decision. He’s been so successful throughout the years with the Red Wings. I’ve watched players emerge under his style, such as Justin Abdelkader there and Leo Komarov here. It appealed to me in that sense that you can bring your game to another level. It’s what we all want as players.

“He has that demeanor behind the bench that won’t help just me, but help all of the young players in our organization to improve.”

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