Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Alec Martinez exemplified the grit and determination of hockey players to win the Stanley Cup. The Golden Knights top-pair defenseman played through the postseason with a broken foot.
As ridiculous as it sounds, the Golden Knights need more of that toughness, not less.
“I was getting wheeled around a lot. Our medical staff is awesome here. I couldn’t have done it without the medical staff,” Martinez said on locker clean-out day. “They were pretty incredible to put me in a position to go out there and compete with the guys. So a big thank you to them.”
Martinez, 33, is headed towards unrestricted free agency. In his mid-30s, this will be his last chance to cash in on the NHL free-agent market, and fanbases already familiar with Martinez’s gutsy work and underrated offensive acumen are lining up.
The VGK defenseman picked a fine time for a career year, too. On the left side of newly signed Alex Pietrangelo, Martinez scored 32 points (9-23-32) in 53 games which were a personal best .60 points per game.
The veteran defenseman also carries something else the Vegas Golden Knights want–a Stanley Cup ring.
Martinez’s six-year, $24 million contract he signed in 2014 as a member of the LA Kings suddenly seems like a bargain.
Especially compared to the rest of the LHD free-agent class.
The Vegas Golden Knights and the hockey front office find themselves in a precarious spot. Martinez is an important piece of the puzzle, but he will get paid because there are few other options. However, the Golden Knights’ salary cap is already headed towards the red rocks.
The Golden Knights did have the highest scoring blue line in the NHL last season, according to Stat Muse. VGK defensemen scored a league-leading 36 goals. So, there is offense to spare.
The Golden Knights have about $5.5 million in salary-cap space, but they have three lineup holes, including a fourth-line center, a third-line wing, and Martinez.
And, of course, GM Kelly McCrimmon needs to make changes, too. The Golden Knights again fell short of their potential and went home before drinking from the Stanley Cup. Again.
Fortunately for Martinez, and unfortunately for the Golden Knights, the player has almost all of the leverage. Including Martinez, there are only a few potential top-four LHD defensemen on the market.
It’s not a great market. Perhaps free agency won’t be how McCrimmon fills this spot if Martinez gets an offer he can’t refuse elsewhere.
3 Left-Defenseman UFA’s
1. Alec Martinez, 33
We’re going to peg the next Martinez contract in the $4.5, perhaps even $5 million range. Good defenseman, thin market. Somebody is going to pay. At 33-years-old, term may be the deciding factor, too. Perhaps the defenseman gets a fourth-year from someone to seal the deal.
2. Ian Cole, 32
Cole has hard miles on his tires. The former Colorado Avalanche defenseman was signed to bring grit and some Stanley Cup leadership to the young Avalanche, but Bo Byram pushed past him this season and Colorado GM Joe Sakic dealt Cole to Minnesota for spare parts D-man Greg Pateryn.
Cole has a pair of Stanley Cup rings from his time with the Pittsburgh Penguins. The big red beard cleared the net in front of Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray for back-to-back championships and was well-liked among teammates.
His career began in St. Louis–he was an offensive defenseman, of sorts. But he never clicked until Pittsburgh acquired him in 2015.
Cole’s three-year, $12.750 million contract is coming to an end. His $3.3 million condo in Denver is also on the market.
He’s not a top-pairing defenseman, but he’s still a rugged, solid, and dependable rearguard with some puck-moving skills, too. He surely won’t score 32 points, but perhaps he comes at a comparative bargain or in the same $4 million range.
Last season, Cole popped only eight points (1-7-8) in 54 games. His career-best was 22 points (4-18-22) with Colorado in 2019-20.
3. Mike Reilly, 27
The Boston Bruins picked up Reilly at the NHL trade deadline for just a third-round pick. The offensive blueliner has blossomed in the last two seasons and scored about .5 points per game for the Ottawa Senators and 15 games after the deadline with the Bruins.
Reilly, 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, is not small, but he’s not a physical defender, either. Nor does he block shots like Martinez.
He’s an offensive defenseman with an accurate shot from the top of the zone. Asking more would be to invite trouble.
His numbers have steadily improved once he got consistent ice time in the NHL over the past two seasons. This season, he scored 27 points (0-27-27) in 55 games split between Ottawa then Boston.
He’s not a top-pair guy with Alex Pietrangelo, but he could be a middle pairing defenseman if Brayden McNabb can step forward.
The concern on Reilly is that he could not handle consistent tough minutes, and he would be overmatched. So, he is not a rock like Martinez though some team may splash the cash for the points.
The market is that thin.
4. Niklas Hjalmarsson, 34
He’s a gritty shutdown defenseman with some physicality but little offensive push. He, too, appeared to be entering the twilight of his career with the Arizona Coyotes.
He does have Stanley Cup rings as a pillar of the Chicago Blackhawks blue line in 2010, 2013, and 2015.
Maybe he has one more great run left in him, but he surely won’t provide much offense. He scored a total of 29 points in the last four seasons. His $5 million salary figures to come way down as injuries have also plagued him in the last few seasons.
It would be a gamble for a team with Stanley Cup hopes to put top-four eggs in Hjalmarsson’s basket.
The rest of the LHD UFA Class:
The rest of the herd are older, just plain old, or not worthy of top-four consideration.
Alex Edler, Vancouver, 35:
Is nearing the end of a fine career. He reportedly wants to stay in Vancouver. At best would be a two-year stop-gap, though more likely one year.
Alex Goligoski, Arizona, 35:
Another stout defenseman in his prime, “Go-go,” is an offensive defenseman looking for another one-year deal somewhere. He did score 22 points (3-19-22) with lots of opportunity in Arizona.
Ryan Murray, New Jersey, 27:
Murray was the second overall pick in 2012 by the Columbus Blue Jackets. He has adequate size at 6-foot-1, 206 pounds. He’s poised and steady.
He’s also poised to the point of not aggressive and not impactful. He did pop 14 points in 48 games this season. There is skill there, but Murray is not a defenseman that stands out or carries important responsibilities. He had just 29 shots in 48 games this season.
For the Vegas Golden Knights, it looks like Martinez, trade, or bust.