NHL Trade Deadline: Golden Knights hoping Alec Martinez’s playoff experience pays dividends

The new Vegas defenseman doesn’t move the needle, but a new change of scenery could be what he needs.

You ask those who spoke about the Vegas Golden Knights acquiring defenseman Alec Martinez today and the initial response was nearly identical.

Yes, he won two Stanley Cups with the Los Angeles Kings, and yes, he scored the Cup-clinching goal in Game 5 of the 2014 series against the New York Rangers.

Sports lore allows us to reminisce on these types of things all the time. That’s why Martinez, after 11 seasons with the Kings, is such a high-profile name  that Vegas traded for on Wednesday. The Golden Knights acquired the 32-year-old defenseman from the Kings for two second-round picks (VGK’s 2020, and St. Louis’ 2021).

“He’s a great player,” said Golden Knights defenseman Brayden McNabb, who was Martinez’s teammate in Los Angeles for three seasons. “Ton of experience, Stanley Cups. He plays the right way, very reliable defensively. It’s a great pickup for us”

In hindsight, this move doesn’t move the needle. It’s not a move that screams “Vegas is winning the Stanley Cup.” There might not be a move out there this deadline that actually screams that, unless you feel Chris Kreider does that. There was no Mark Stone-like deal to make at this point.

Despite that hindsight, the Golden Knights are hoping Martinez is the missing piece for a Vegas blue line that has seen its share of inconsistencies for this weird season. Martinez absolutely brings the experience; he’s played 64 Stanley Cup Playoff games, all with the Kings. That’s now third on the Golden Knights roster behind Marc-Andre Fleury (142) and Paul Stastny (79).

Fleury, who has won the Cup three times with the Pittsburgh Penguins and of course led the Golden Knights to the Cup Final in 2018, doesn’t believe it’s the most experienced teams that have the edge when they get to the playoffs.

“But I think it’s good to have two [Cups],” Fleury said. “He’s played those high-pressured games and delivered.”

What matters in these final 21 games, as the Golden Knights continue to keep pace in the Pacific Division, is if Vegas feels Martinez is an immediate upgrade over Jon Merrill and Nick Holden. Martinez, who will make his Vegas debut Thursday against the Tampa Bay Lightning, is expected to take the spot of Merrill or Holden in the lineup, moving one of the two veterans to the third pairing. The ideal scenario is putting Martinez with top defenseman Shea Theodore on the second pairing.

But with the addition of Martinez comes questions. One being, did the Golden Knights give up too much for a 32-year-old defenseman that has struggled to stay healthy the past few seasons? Since missing only five games for L.A. in 2017 and 2018, Martinez missed 22 games last season (14 for an upper-body injury), and was out for 18 games this season when his wrist was cut by a skate in November. Not that that was his fault, but it still counts in the missed-games department.

Since returning from the wrist accident, Martinez has only three points (one goal, two assists) in 17 games.

General manager Kelly McCrimmon said he feels the Golden Knights are better after adding Martinez (he has to, he made the trade), but he made the move knowing that it would help to have Martinez under term beyond this season. Martinez has a cap hit of $4 million this year and next, but with the Golden Knights hitting the cap ceiling for most of this season, the thought of the Kings retaining cap was not discussed.

Which means this will be one weird move if this doesn’t work for Vegas.

“This was a move that we had considered for a long time,” McCrimmon said. “We identified this as a way we wanted to improve our team, [trading for] a defenseman of this caliber.”

Martinez has eight points (one goal, seven assists) through 41 games. He’s not known for his offensive prowess — his NHL career-high is 39 points in 2017 — but is someone Peter DeBoer can throw out there in a lot of situations. Martinez has averaged over 21 minutes per game the past five seasons, including 21:31 this season.

He’s also going to block a whole bunch of shots. Martinez would be third on the Golden Knights in blocked shots. McNabb leads the club with 116, and Deryk Engelland has 86. Martinez has 85, but he’s also played eight fewer games than Engelland.

It’s not like Martinez is going to come in and contend for a Norris Trophy, but if getting him into a new environment — one where winning is happening and an appearance in the Western Conference Final could very much happen — then having motivated players is never a bad thing.

“When you’re playing on a team like that that’s been rebuilding for a couple years, there’s some long nights,” DeBoer said. “We’re very comfortable. We know what we’re getting and what he’s capable of doing.”

It might also help to have someone who has spent his entire career with the Pacific Division. Martinez has a lot of familiarity, and is someone who will play a lot of division games in the coming weeks. Vegas has 11 divisional games between now and the end of the season.

“That’s a big thing, being familiar with who you’re playing, it’s huge having that experience,” McNabb said. “He’s got a ton.”

The Golden Knights still have until noon Monday to make another move. If draft capital is involved, Vegas will have plenty of it (they still have three second-round picks over the next two seasons to work with). The Athletic reports Vegas is kicking the tires on a potential move for Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Erik Gustafsson. That is pending on the price coming down prior to Monday.

Gustafsson would be the puck mover that would round out the Vegas defense, as well as completely change everything that we’ve known for the first 60 games. McCrimmon said he will hit the reset button after the Martinez move and come back within the next few days, so don’t expect the Golden Knights to be sitting on their hands until Monday.

“Any general manager if he’s honest will tell you he’d like to improve every position on his team,” McCrimmon said. “We like our team. We like our team a lot. We’ll see what’s out there. We don’t have a move we feel we have to make. We’ll see how the remaining days leading up to the 24th pan out.”