Last year, Drew Doughty won the Norris Trophy. Jake Muzzin continued his emergence as a clear #2 blueliner. And Alec Martinez... well, he solidified himself as part of LA’s Big Three on defense, but he really only did it by playing a lot. His possession numbers hit a career-low as he took on more responsibility, and his even-strength production also dropped off, though he did get a career-high in points with 31. At this time last year, we were wondering whether #27 was really cut out for this whole top-four thing.
There’s an argument that, last season, Martinez was most important to the Kings in his absence. LA’s defense collapsed after Martinez re-injured himself in Game 1 of the first round of the playoffs. The postseason had shown how crucial he’d be to the Kings’ success this year, but he hadn’t proven it fully on the ice. If he continues to play the way he has through 22 games, though, you can consider it proven.
The obvious place to start is on the scoresheet. Martinez’s scoring rate through 22 games, more likely than not, will cool off as the season goes on, but it’s worth mentioning just how impressive he’s been. He’s got five goals, nine assists, and 14 points, all tops among LA defensemen. Right now, Martinez is scoring at the fourth-highest rate (in terms of points per 60 minutes) of any Kings defenseman since the lockout, and the second-highest in the last ten seasons. The only campaign that’s got his 1.68 points/60 beaten over a full season since 2007-08: Drew Doughty in 2009-10. (He got a Norris nom for that one.)
Of course, you can argue that getting three points in three minutes of 3-on-3 play is a nice little bonus that past Kings’ defensemen couldn’t take advantage of. Fair. So let’s limit it to 5-on-5 play, even if it leaves out fun stuff like this. Martinez moves from second to... still second. In fact, he’s ahead of 2009-10 Doughty, who got a big boost from a terrific power play. The only player who’s ahead of him in 5v5 points per 60 is (promise not to laugh?) Jamie McBain in 2014-15. Of course, McBain played only 270 minutes at 5-on-5 the entire season. Martinez has blown past that already.
It’s easy to construct a narrative that Martinez has been great based on points, but that doesn’t mean much unless he’s backed it up with his overall play. Last season, when Alec Martinez was on the ice with a partner other than Jake Muzzin, the Kings had a 47.4% Corsi For%. This year? 55.2%. The Martinez-Muzzin pairing has improved marginally, but the Martinez-[Anyone Else] pairing has improved immensely. You can visualize this a little more easily below.
In 2015-16, pretty much everyone on the Kings did better in the shot battle, comparatively, when they weren’t partnered with Martinez, while Martinez tanked without Muzzin and couldn’t blame his issues on any one defenseman.
This year? It’s almost the opposite. Martinez still doesn’t do quite as well without Muzzin, but he’s still been pretty darn good. And when Muzzin is on the ice without Martinez, LA gets more shots, but they give up more as well.
The shots against numbers are particularly encouraging. Last season, Martinez was second-worst among the Kings’ regular defensemen in shots against per 60. This year? He’s second-best. Even Martinez’s PK numbers have improved; this year he’s allowing fewer shots on goal while shorthanded than either Doughty or Muzzin, while the opposite was true last season. (The numbers below, as with the stats cited throughout this article, are from Corsica.Hockey.)
The only problem, so far, is that the Kings are allowing more goals when he’s on the ice than they did last year. And while it might seem like I’m burying that because it’s an inconvenient fact, that issue will straighten itself out. Right now, while Martinez and Muzzin are on the ice at 5v5, the goalies are posting an .889 save percentage. Since Jonathan Quick became the starter in 2008-09, no Kings defenseman has experienced an on-ice save percentage worse than that over a full season. It’s bad luck and it’s almost guaranteed to improve.
Heading into this season, Martinez was a 29-year-old defenseman yet to fully prove he belonged in the upper echelon of the league’s blueliners. We knew what we were probably going to get, but honestly, it didn’t seem like the “leap” LA paid $24 million for was going to happen. Based on the first quarter of this season, though, we might be seeing it right now.