by Nick Nollenberger @NickNollen / sjbarracuda.com
World Junior U20 Championships, three years at the University of Minnesota which included a pair of NCAA National titles, 859 NHL games in a 14-year career… One could say Paul Martin has seen everything in the sport of hockey. But one thing he had not seen, before this season, was the minor leagues. After off-season ankle surgery, Martin was assigned to the Barracuda from the Sharks in December for a rehab stint, before returning to the NHL.
But after continuously being scratched, Martin approached the organization for a trade in January, so the Sharks placed the veteran defender on waivers in hopes of giving him a chance to reboot his career.
After clearing waivers, Martin was reassigned back to the Barracuda, immediately becoming the team’s elder statesman and providing a Barracuda defensive corps with an average age of 22.14 years old with priceless mentorship.
“Paul is the ultimate pro, and is an incredibly smart hockey player,” said Barracuda General Manager Joe Will. “He’s showed our young guys how to be a professional both on and off the ice… As a hockey player, he’s showed them how to play defense at a high level.”
The Sharks signed Martin as a free agent in 2015, and in his first year, the club made its first Stanley Cup Finals appearance. The next season, he played an instrumental role in Brent Burns winning a Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenseman. Now, he’s leading San Jose’s defensive prospects, while showcasing himself in hopes of another NHL opportunity.
One defenseman who’s certainly soaked up Martin’s valuable experience is 21-year-old Cavan Fitzgerald. The rookie defender has continually made strides in his defensive zone this year, thanks in part to watching Martin’s tendencies.
“The little things he does, his patience, his stick positioning is always in the right spot… he’s just a mature player,” said Fitzgerald. “When I come off the bench, he’ll give me little pointers… some guys wouldn’t do that, so it feels nice to have a guy like that back there.”
“You see these guys want to make it to the next level, and they’re obviously really talented and young, so with my experience, I can help out with the little things, and they’ve been responsive,” said Martin.
The main objective for Martin in the AHL is to get back to where he was a season ago, but his impact has been felt immensely in other areas. While the team has certainly enjoyed Martin’s presence, he too has enjoyed his time in the AHL.
“I’ve embraced this experience. It’s just fun to play games again. Getting minutes, playing games, and enjoying the process is what I’ve tried to do. The guys have been great, the coaching staff, everyone, so it’s been a lot of fun.”
With Martin in the lineup, the Barracuda average .53 less goals against per-game and their penalty kill is 91.7%, which would rank first in the AHL.
“Paul has solidified our backend, and he’s teaching the guys by example, and by executing the details of the game that are so important, and it shows,” said Barracuda Assistant Coach Ryan Mougenel. “He’s even teaching us as a coaching staff.”
That’s an impressive compliment coming from a coaching staff that has a combined 28 years of professional head coaching experience.
“It’s great for our young guys, here is a guy that’s been in the National Hockey League for 14 years… he’s not overly flashy, but how he goes about his business is a tremendous example to follow,” said Barracuda Head Coach Roy Sommer. “He’s a great guy to watch and learn from. Positionally he is as sound as they come.”
Only time will tell if Martin will be with the Barracuda for the remainder of the season, but his impact on San Jose’s defensive unit will be felt long after this season.