An update on Paul Martin's status appeared yesterday on NJ.com's Devils Beat Reporters Blog and in today's Star Ledger: Rich Chere reported that the New Jersey Devils may see Martin back for Christmas. Martin was a very important player last season on defense and was well on his way to continuing his form prior to his left arm being fractured back on October 24. I expected much from Martin prior to this season and outside of his offensive production, I felt he was doing well in his own end on those 9 games he did play.
However, the Devils have thrived in spite of losing Martin (and so many others) to injury. As Rich Chere noted the Devils have put together a 16-5-1 record without their de facto #1 defenseman. While Martin was eventually going to return, who would have guessed that Andy Greene would step up in his spot and take on more minutes? Who would have guessed Mike Mottau would follow behind Greene in minutes? Sure, I said back after the injury that Colin White, Bryce Salvador, Mottau, and Greene would have to take more minutes; but I didn't think it would be to this degree. And I certainly wouldn't have thought the Devils would hold teams to less than 28 shots per game on average (currently at 27.1, third best in the league) without the two-way defensive force that is Paul Martin.
Now that Martin could be coming back in December, some thoughtful questions come to my mind, both with respect to the short term and long term situation. I'm not going to provide my personal opinion, instead I want to know what you think. Feel free to answer as many or as few of these in comments; but I honestly would like to get an idea on what you think about what the New Jersey Devils should do when Paul Martin returns.
Assume that when Paul Martin comes back, he's in good shape. Remember when Johnny Oduya came back from injury? He got 21:03 in his first game back from injury on December 5 against Detroit and was tentatively paired with Mark Fraser. However, throughout the game, he was cycled in with the other four regular Devils defenders and got some time on both the power play and penalty kill. Given that he replaced Matthew Corrente, who was getting limited minutes in his place, the positioning was easy to figure out. When Martin comes back, some tough decisions will have to be made. (Well, outside of keeping Mark Fraser as the 7th defenseman. Given that Jay Leach was picked up on waivers, surely Fraser would be if he were sent down to Lowell.)
1. Who do you pair Paul Martin with? The answer to this question in recent seasons has been Johnny Oduya. This gives the team the advantage of keeping their current pairings of Greene-Salvador and White-Mottau. However, this was not the case prior to the injury. The expected pairings for the Pittsburgh game were Martin-Salvador, White-Oduya, Greene-Mottau. Those moves were made back then because Oduya was playing poorly and if Lemaire liked what he saw from those pairings, they could be seen again. Perhaps depending on form, Lemaire could throw out something completely different. This will be immediately answered upon Martin's return.
2. How do you split up the workload? In 2006-07, Paul Martin averaged 25:13 per game, behind Brian Rafalski. In 2007-08, Martin averaged 23:53 per game to lead the defense. In 2008-09, Martin once again led all Devils blueliners in average time on ice with 24:22. And in the 9 games he played this season, Martin has averaged 23:57 per game - a higher average than Greene, despite Greene averaging over 26 minutes per game in November. Martin has regularly played a lot of minutes with his steady of play. However, while he's been gone, the team's defense hasn't suffered (or at least suffered significantly) when Andy Greene and Mike Mottau has taken similar minutes. They've proven themselves able, if not worthy, of playing so often. When Martin returns, everyone's workload will become easier, but how is it handled? Does Martin go back to eventually defending for 23-26 minutes per game? Does Lemaire continue his trust in Greene and Mottau and have everyone play a more modest 20-22 minutes? This will be answered a few games after Martin's return, depending on how everyone adjusts.
3. What about special teams, where will Martin fit in? Lemaire continued Brent Sutter's practice last season of putting 4 forwards on each power play unit - taking it further in a few cases in putting 5 forwards out there. So far this season, Andy Greene has stepped up his play enough to be the lone defenseman on the first power play unit; and a number of defenders have rotated in and out on the second power play unit - currently it's Johnny Oduya. When Martin comes back, the Devils will have 3 defenders who have the passing and puck possession skills to be involved in man advantage situations. Does Lemaire change the nature of the power play units, changing one of the units to a more traditional 3 forward-2 defensemen set-up? If Lemaire keeps the 1 defenseman units, who stays on them: Greene and Martin, Martin and Oduya, Greene and Oduya, someone else with someone else? And does Martin make it back to the first unit to begin with, given that he was never a point machine?
Similarly, where does Martin fit in on the penalty kill? Prior to the injury, Martin averaged 3 shorthanded minutes per game. He was the unquestioned first defender on the PK. He's too good to keep off the PK, so the question is really who gets bumped from the PK? Probably not Mike Mottau or Colin White, who average at least 2 minutes of PK time per game. Without Martin, the fourth defender has been rotated among three players - they'll likely be moved from a regular spot on the units? Should it be Bryce Salvador (1:52 SH ATOI/G)? Johnny Oduya (1:50 SH ATOI/G)? Andy Greene (1:29 ATOI/G)? Like the second question, the answer should become clear a few games after Martin returns.
1. Should the Devils make a trade for an offensive/stud defenseman? ILWT user Los Diabolos raises in this FanPost what is an increasing question for the Devils: Should the Devils trade for Scott Niedermayer? Niedermayer is still a top defenseman at age 36 and there's no question to whether he would benefit the Devils. With Anaheim playing poorly so far and his brother Rob Niedermayer doing well for a successful Devils squad, the return of Scott Niedermayer to the blueline could put the Devils over the top. However, the cost for getting Niedermayer may be costly by the time the NHL Trade Deadline rolls around in early March. More importantly, bringing in Scott Niedermayer or any other defenseman would create many of the same questions I'm asking about Martin now.
Let's assume we're in late January and Paul Martin is performing very well along with the rest of the blueline. Assume all of the short term questions are answered. Should the Devils make a move to get a top defenseman if Martin is already doing well at the #1 spot? If not, would a blueline of Martin, Oduya, Greene, Mottau, White, Salvador, and Fraser as the spare defender be good enough for the rest of the season and the post season?
2. What should the Devils do about Paul Martin, the impending free agent? Per CapGeek, the Devils have one major unrestricted free agent for the summer of 2010 and it's Paul Martin. Martin is getting $4.5 million for the 2009-10 season and if he plays as well as he has been in prior years, he'll be looking for that much money or more. If he isn't, well, as a UFA, I imagine many teams will definitely offer him a significant amount of money anyway. However, the Devils have a number of important restricted free agents to tie up in David Clarkson, Niclas Bergfors, Rod Pelley, and Tyler Eckford among others; not to mention Mike Mottau is a UFA and will certainly get a raise. The Devils could very well spend the 2010 summer just keeping those guys and that's it. And that's not even considering 2011 (Langenbrunner UFA, Parise RFA a.k.a. The Summer of Zach Parise Getting Real Paid) The Devils may not be able to keep Martin at any cost anyway, but they'll have the space to give him plenty.
Given that the Devils are 16-5-1 without Martin this season and that Andy Greene has filled his spot on the defense to everyone's delight, is keeping Martin that much of a priority anymore? That very well could depend on the other defensemen's performance? Could the Devils possibly go without Martin in the future, in the hopes Greene is for real and can play as well as he does for a few more seasons? What if Oduya shows he can lead a defense in the next few months?
These are all, I think, valid and thoughtful questions at this juncture and so they require some thoughtful answers. Of course, we may not begin to see the answers until the Feel free to answer them how ever you'd like in the comments.