Paul Martin was a big part of the San Jose Sharks' run to the Stanley Cup Final last season.
But that was last season. It was his first year after signing a four-year deal worth $4.85 AAV (average annual value).
The Minnesota native perfectly played the yin to Brent Burns' yang on the Sharks' second defense pair in 2015-16. He looked more like a 32-year-old defenseman than a 34/35-year-old blueliner. This year, however, the 35-year old (36 in March), has looked more like a 37/38-year old through the first six games.
Let me be clear about one thing. Six games is an extremely small sample size. But on the final two games of the Sharks just completed five-game road trip, Martin looked far from his 2015-16 self. Last year his lack of speed was noticeable, but he was still quick enough to use his excellent defensive stick to thwart scoring opportunities.
Against Pittsburgh last week though Martin was easily the worst Sharks skater. He committed the dreaded puck over glass/delay of game penalty and failed to execute an easy clearing attempt. Against Detroit, Martin made an extremely poor read at the offensive blue line that allowed Gustav Nyquist to easily skate by him in the neutral zone in route to an odd man rush and goal at the other end.
There is no doubt that Martin can play better and will play better this season. One has to wonder though, if the Sharks aren't actually better without Martin. With his cap hit and contract length, he likely won't be able to be traded, but if the Sharks want to get the most value out of him, they might want to consider giving him some nights off this season.
Schlemko and Demelo Can Slide up
As a rookie last season, Dylan Demelo proved he belonged in the NHL. He was and is far better than the man who took his job at the trade deadline last season. Demelo played a good two months straight in the lineup last season next to Brenden Dillon on the third pair. They were extremely solid together. Dillon plays his best hockey with a puck-moving partner and Demelo is just that.
Thus far this season though, Dillon has been playing with newcomer David Schlemko. The veteran Schlemko can also be described as a puck mover, but unlike say Brent Burns, Schlemko isn't a risky type of defender as he is much more responsible in his own end. As a left-handed shot, Schlemko can easily slide into Martin's spot next to Burns. We have actually already seen this combination in spurts over these first six games. When the Sharks are trailing and need some more offensive punch, Head Coach Peter DeBoer has put Schlemko and Burns together for a few shifts.
Unfortunately in those scenarios, that leaves a third pair of Martin and Dillon, which leaves a lot to be desired in terms of puck moving ability. A better third pair would be Demelo and Dillon. Of course, I would argue Demelo and Martin as better than Demelo and Dillon. That said, with Dillon still just 25-years old and under contract through 2019-20, I can't see him coming out of the lineup.
Again, it is early, but as strong as Martin was last season, the addition of Schlemko and the second-year Demelo on the roster means the Sharks have seven quality defenseman. Out of those seven, the Sharks simply might be best with their six fastest in the lineup. We saw in the Cup final last season how speed was the difference.
At the very least, with Martin showing signs of age early, DeBoer and the Sharks should seriously consider giving Martin games off in back-to-back situations. As an established veteran defensive defenseman, he isn't likely to have his game get rusty and he is far more valuable at the top of his game in April and May than he is playing every single night in November, December and January.
Schlemko and Burns has the potential of being a really strong pair. Dillon and Demelo proved last season that they have incredible chemistry. The Sharks certainly would not be drastically reducing their chance of winning by resting Martin on certain nights. Arguably, they would be improving their lineup. Therefore, it seems all too wise to closely monitor Martin's minutes this season.