The Kings aren’t a premier offensive club, but if there’s a game situation in which they’re elite in finding the back of the net, it’s in overtime. No team has posted more overtime wins more than Los Angeles’ 24 since the NHL’s switch to three-on-three, and only Calgary has bettered the their .750 winning percentage.
There are reasons behind the offensive success. First off, it doesn’t hurt to open the extra session with a combination of Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter. But other teams have elite players as a part of their core, and they don’t have the same OT record.
What those teams don’t necessarily have on a second OT shift is an explosive skating defenseman who reads the right moments to jump into the rush, and directly transfer his effective checking into tangible offense. That’s what Alec Martinez provides, and he’s ready to make his 2017-18 debut tonight after missing the first three games of the season with a lower-body injury that necessitated a brief stay on injured reserve. Given the team’s added emphasis this season on playmaking and utilizing defensemen as an extra wave of the attack, he’s poised to thrive within the Kings’ evolved system.
Finding those soft moments to jump up into the rush – a decision that punctuated Los Angeles’ 2014 Stanley Cup run – is something that “starts in your own end,” according to Martinez. We’ve heard coaches say that scoring chances originate from strong checking, and Martinez demonstrates that.
“Make plays with your feet. I use my feet to get up into the rush with that fourth man in the attack,” he said. “We’re a number in the rush. We don’t have to be one, two, three, or four. I guess you’d automatically assume that the defenseman would usually be the fourth guy, but if you need to lead the rush, then go ahead and do that too.”
That, along with his situational usage when there’s open-ice – either on the man advantage, in four-on-four or three-on-three – has allowed him to shoot 7.6% in all situations since his first full season in the league in 2010-11. It’s the highest rate out of any Kings defenseman over that span.
Knowing when to jump into the attack and when to sit back seems to be part of a natural intuition that appears automatic at times.
“I don’t know if I’d call it ‘automatic.’ I don’t think anything comes automatic,” he said. “Maybe for Drew Doughty, but not for myself. I’ve got to work on things.”
And Darryl Sutter, especially early in Martinez’s tenure, was one to call notice to that. When Martinez was used as a left wing in practice early in the 2013-14 season, Sutter was asked for how long he had considered using Martinez up front. “Every time he’s backchecking when he should have been skating backwards,” he said, dryly.
Touché. And there were also inconsistencies that crept into his game while he was paired with Jake Muzzin last season, a year in which Martinez posted a career-best 39 points but a career-worst minus-17 rating.
But like Doughty, there have been so many improvements in Martinez’s game both in his understanding of when to jump up into the rush and in his decisions away from the puck. In 2017-18, Martinez averaged 2:13 of shorthanded time on ice, his second consecutive season logging at least two minutes in that situation. That stat is far from some sort of uber revelation, but does demonstrate the comfort that the coaches have in sending him over the boards in any situation. (That shorthanded usage also jumped up significantly between 2013-14 and 2014-15 because Slava Voynov was no longer on the team.)
But given that John Stevens worked so closely with the defensemen during his tenure as an assistant coach and as Associate Head Coach, how has he seen the evolution in Martinez’s game apart from what’s most recognizable, and at what point did he become comfortable in his play away from the puck?
“I would say since he became a regular in our lineup. I mean, Jeez, he was a huge part of both Cups that we won, so it’s hard to pinpoint a timetable, but Marty’s worked extremely hard at becoming a better defender,” he said. “He’s probably a lot more physical than teams realize. He just separates the man from the puck really well because he’s got good feet. He’s an explosive guy and he’s actually really good and firm down low in his battles. It’s something he’s worked extremely hard at – both off the ice, getting stronger, and just his technique on the ice – but he has an ability because he’s got good feet to play against speedy guys, and he’s got an ability because of the way he’s gotten stronger to play against bigger guys. He’s a really good example for young players of a guy that’s worked really hard at his game to become a good player.”
John Stevens, on whether there was ever a moment or realization he could pinpoint in which Alec Martinez became comfortable at picking moments to join the rush:
That’s a tough question. I think we’ve always liked what he brings, and he was paired with Greener as a third pair. He’s obviously very effective. He’s always what we would call a fifth defensemen that we thought was going to cross the threshold of being a fourth defenseman. He got stronger. I think his endurance got better. He’s able to play against top guys. That a probably the part of his game, but we always liked his ability to move the puck and jump into the play and be an option on the power play. The one thing he wasn’t able to do early in his career was play the right side. He was out of our lineup, and when we’d put guys in, if we needed a right defenseman or on our right side, a lot of times he was overlooked, so to his credit, he worked extremely hard on that part of his game. Taking pucks off the wall, especially on the blue line, defending on that side of the rink, and he’s become probably more comfortable on the right than the left. I think it’s always been part of his game, but certainly since the Cup in ’14 and what he did on that run and the big goals he scored, but I think his feet and his puck skills have always been a big part of his game.
Alec Martinez, on picking moments in the game to jump into the rush:
I think it’s always been my skating ability, probably the number one reason why I’m even in the league. So I think just utilizing that. I think if I’m not playing well, I’ m usually not moving my feet the way that I should be. So I think that’s just the focus I take individually. John’s worked with me a lot over the years with that. So I think sometimes it’s easy to … get a little too anxious to join into the rush where I think sometimes it’s good to kind of slow up and find that soft spot.
-Lead photo via Francois Lacasse/NHLI