Pens' Paul Martin refused easy out

  • Scott Burnside [ARCHIVE]
  • ESPN.com | February 9, 2013

PITTSBURGH -- At the end of last season, Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero invited defenseman Paul Martin into his office.

With Martin sitting across from him, Shero asked a simple question: Do you want out?

Was the abomination that was Martin's season so brutal that he would appreciate a new start somewhere else?

"I asked him if he wanted a trade," Shero told ESPN.com this week.

These are the moments that define a person, a career even. In some ways, they define a franchise too.

Martin, signed to a five-year, $25-million deal in the summer of 2010, could not have been blamed if he said, "Yes, get me the heck out of here."

Fans were certainly clamoring for just such a move throughout the season as the mistakes piled up and Martin's play worsened.

"He was embarrassed by his year," Shero said.

But Martin looked at his boss and insisted he wanted to stay. He told Shero he didn't want to take the easy way out. Moreover, Martin pledged to return this season a different player, the old player, the player that had made him one of the top free-agent defensemen on the market in 2010.

"He said, 'I do not want to be traded. I came here for a reason, and you signed me for a reason,'" Shero recalled Martin saying. "He said, 'If I do come back, you're going to see a different player.'"

Paul Martin
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesPaul Martin, center, leads all Penguins in average ice time at 25:28 a night and has one goal and five assists this season.

So far, Martin has been good to his word.

"I basically told him I have a lot of pride in what I do," Martin told ESPN.com. "I came here for a reason. It wasn't just because of the money. [He had more lucrative offers.] I came here because I wanted to win a Stanley Cup."

Assistant coach Todd Reirden visited Martin at his offseason home in Minnesota during the summer to monitor the defenseman's workout regimen and discuss Martin's place with the team.

Physically, Martin put on 10 pounds to make himself more solid, while managing to increase his foot speed and mobility.

Reirden, who handles the Penguins' defensemen, and coach Dan Bylsma decided to move Martin to the right side where he had played earlier in his career in New Jersey and pair him with rock-solid veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik.

The results have been remarkable.

Martin leads all Penguin skaters in average ice time at 25:28 a night. He and Orpik play against opposing teams' top lines every night, and have been the defensive anchors on a team that ranks in the top 10 in the NHL in goals allowed per game and penalty killing.

Through the Pens' first 12 games, Orpik and Martin combined for six minutes in penalties with Martin taking his first and only minor of the season in the third period of Saturday's 3-1 loss to the Devils.

Martin has been on the ice for just seven even-strength goals in Pittsburgh's first 12 games.

"Paul's a good story," Shero said. "He's playing like the Paul Martin we signed and the player Paul Martin is."

Phil Bourque is a former Penguins defenseman who won two Stanley Cups with the team in the early 1990s and now is a radio analyst covering the Penguins. He describes Martin's 2011-12 season as "a train wreck."

Bourque figures there are a number of elements to Martin's renaissance. First, he is completely healthy, something that wasn't the case last season when Martin missed nine regular-season games and three playoff games to injury, Bourque said.

"I think they pretty much said to him, we don't care if you don't get a point all season," Bourque said. "And don't try and justify that $5 million salary and just be Paul Martin."

As expectations to provide offense diminished, Martin has actually contributed more regularly on the offensive side of things. On Thursday against Washington, with Kris Letang out of the lineup with an injury, Martin was a key part of a power-play unit that converted three of four chances during a five-goal outburst in the second period.

Martin has a goal and five assists this season.

"At first I didn't know how it was going to go," Martin said. "It's been great so far. Brooks is easy to play with. He's smart. I think he's underrated as a skater and a puck mover."

Risky?

Reirden grins.

"Yeah, it was," he said.

In fact, the whole process was fraught with risk.

In taking Martin at his word, Shero dealt his defensive partner Zbynek Michalek back to Phoenix at the draft. Then, by deciding not to just keep Martin but in effect ask him to do even more, the Penguins opened themselves to another season of defensive issues.

The bottom line is that few teams can afford to have a $5 million defenseman who has to be buried in the lineup because he cannot perform up to standards.

But part of Reirden's visit in the summer was to put all of this in front of Martin, to challenge him to revive his career.

"All the credit goes to Paul and [the] commitment he made this summer," Reirden told ESPN.com.

The coach sees a more aggressive, more assertive player who uses his speed and hockey smarts to thwart attacking forwards. He is winning more battles around the net and in the corners, and his attention to detail in terms of stick positioning is better, the coach said.

"His aggressiveness and confidence on the ice is at a level we haven't seen in a while," Reirden said. "He got off to a good start to the season and is building each game. Last year, things just started to snowball in the wrong direction."

More than his play, the coaching staff asked Martin to take on more of a mentorship role with the group of young defensemen the Penguins are grooming.

If Martin wasn't sure how this was all going to play out, neither was the coaching staff.

"I was going to give him the opportunity to succeed," Reirden said. "What he did with it was up to him."

Several analysts told ESPN.com they are withholding judgment on the Martin experiment and wonder whether he'll ever return to the promising player he was in New Jersey. But thus far the Penguins are ecstatic with the results.

As for Martin, he is as quiet and thoughtful a player as you are likely to meet in the league. Standing in the Pittsburgh dressing room, he is candid about the nightmare that was last season and thankful for a second chance to make things right.

A former standout at the University of Minnesota, Martin never played a single game in the minors, making the jump from collegiate hockey to the NHL after the Devils selected him with the 62nd overall pick in 2000. The 31-year-old was a shoo-in to make the 2010 U.S. Olympic team until he suffered a broken forearm and missed the tournament.

If he continues to play at his current level, he will definitely be back on the U.S. Olympic radar for the Sochi Games that begin a year from now in Russia.

"It was definitely difficult. I definitely wasn't happy with the way last year went," he said.

In some ways, it is a classic case of a player trying to be something he wasn't, an example of how a player becomes defined by his contract and pushes to do more to justify the money. Instead, the more Martin tried to do, the less he accomplished. And the less he accomplished, the less confidence he had to make the plays that had at one point been second nature to him.

The fact that fans and sports talk shows began taking Martin to task for his play exacerbated the situation.

Even if you don't read or listen, you know what people are saying about you.

"You don't want to believe it," Martin said. "You're so hard on yourself. I wasn't satisfied with the way I was playing. You're frustrated. You expect more of yourself."

He questioned how he was preparing and what he was doing. In the offseason, Martin went about addressing those issues.

"I don't want to make excuses for anything," he said. "For me, it was a great learning experience. I think it will help make me a better hockey player and make me a better person."

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