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Just because Lou Lamoriello relinquished his duties as general manager, doesn’t mean all his old habits and transaction-related tendencies will go with him. One such trend that perpetually echoed through Lamoriello’s extensive player acquisition history has been bringing back players that formerly played for the organization. This tactic hasn’t necessarily worked out with most players returning to New Jersey for another stint in recent years. The only exceptions that come to mind are Petr Sykora (2011-2012) and more recently, Scott Gomez after his performance this past season.
The reasons for seeking help in the present by resorting to the past are justifiable. The organization is already familiar with the players that have been brought back for another tour in a Devils uniform. They know the playing system, the organization’s philosophy, and from a speculative standpoint, Ray Shero has a chance to continue this sentimentally eccentric tradition with a player that has mutual ties with him and the Devils organization.
Entering this offseason as an unrestricted free agent is 34-year old defenseman Paul Martin. He signed a five-year deal with the Penguins after spending the first six seasons of his career with the Devils. Hopes were high he would become a marquee top pairing defenseman with some offensive upside for the Devils, primarily in the years that followed the departures of longtime defensive icons like Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, and Brian Rafalski. Martin never had more than 37 points or six goals in a single season, but established himself as a prominent two-way defenseman capable of logging heavy minutes on a nightly basis and be utilized on special team units. Performance-wise, Martin was always consistent although he never attained the star-caliber status some overly hopefuls projected for him in Martin’s younger years.
It’s not inconceivable for a potential return to New Jersey to be totally out of the question for Martin, who played four seasons for Shero in Pittsburgh. Granted the grossly overdue youth movement on New Jersey’s defense is well under way, and highly lauded by the Devils’ faithful, the group’s lack of experience and endurance of growing pains was a reiterative shortcoming this season. Led by 32-year old Andy Greene, nobody else on the Devils’ defense is currently older than 24 or has 200 career games under their belt yet. It’s worth noting that Martin’s never missed the playoffs over his 11-year NHL career, having 85 playoff appearances under his belt. Although he’s only advanced beyond the first round five of those years, the experience would be beneficial to the Devils’ young defensive group and balance some of the pressure that Andy Greene has as the team’s only true veteran defenseman, onto him.
If Ray Shero is able to acquire more offensive firepower, it’ll likely come at the expense of chipping at the organization’s young defense. There’s a lot of expendability however, especially on the roster, with more defensive prospects expected to come through the pipeline in the coming years if they aren’t already in Albany. Bringing a player like Paul Martin into the mix would supplement the departures from packaging one or two of them in a deal, and the time Martin would spend in Jersey (I would imagine it wouldn’t be longer than three or four years), could coincide with some of the Devils’ highly-touted defensive prospects, becoming ready enough to vie for a roster spot with the big team.
In other words, acquiring a capable veteran like Martin, relieves some of the pressure on the organization’s more recently drafted defensive prospects still in their developmental stages.
Three considerable obstacles that could keep a Paul Martin/Devils reunion from coming to fruition would be conflicting views on what type of contract Martin and Shero think he deserves, Martin’s health, and the nature of his playing aspirations at this stage of his career. Martin has a considerable wealth of playoff experience, but hasn’t gotten past the conference finals. Martin’s repeatedly emphasized his burning desire to win a cup, and considering how the Devils’ rebuild is in its inceptive stages, New Jersey might not be among his top choices. Unless Martin thinks he could help the Devils make a turnaround similar to what the Flyers did in 2008 after their disastrous 2007 campaign, New Jersey’s quality of competitiveness could make him think twice if he wants to make a serious cup run moving forward.
Martin is coming off a five-year deal that paid him $5 million annually. The rising salary cap, combined with a weak summer free agent crop could put him in a position to sign an equal or more lucrative contract. Although the Devils will have a considerable amount of cap space at their disposal, I can’t see Shero willing to sacrifice any amount for Martin’s services that drastically exceeds his previous contract’s salary. Term is also a sensitive matter when it comes to veterans nearing the twilight of their career. Realistically, a player like Martin has anywhere from two to four effective years left in them regularly playing as a top-two pairing defenseman. Most players in their early-mid thirties would recognize this as an opportunity to cash out one last time before their playing career comes to an end, unless they sacrifice term and/or salary for a legitimate shot at a cup (a position the Devils, as we all know, aren’t quite in right now).
Whether it’s the Devils, Penguins, or another team, an underlying factor that’ll impact Martin’s perceived value is his health, which has limited him to playing just one full season (2006-2007), and one 80-game season (2005-2006). Since his rookie campaign, Martin’s missed 159 games over the next ten seasons, largely in part to injuries. Two of those years he was sidelined for more than half a season (60 games 2009-2010, 43 games 2013-2014). The only silver lining with Martin’s fragile well-being, is his sidelining could provide an opportunity for one of the organization’s other young defensemen to showcase themselves, whether it’s temporary or they make it difficult on themselves to be demoted upon his return.
It’s definitely a situation worth keeping an eye on that I’m sure Ray Shero will strongly consider if he already isn’t.