When the Islanders convened for training camp, the roles for the team's forwards already were pretty well defined. John Tavares was the top-line center with Matt Moulson; Frans Nielsen was centering a second line with Michael Grabner and Kyle Okposo. Josh Bailey and Blake Comeau didn't have defined roles, but they were skating on a third line to give them a chance to create some offense.
The fourth line was a bit of an afterthought, but it definitely was going to have veteran Marty Reasoner at center. Matt Martin, who played 68 games with the Isles as a rookie last season, was on the fourth line, but mostly because there was no place else -- other than Bridgeport -- he seemed to fit.
Nearly a quarter of the way into this season, Martin still is on that fourth line -- but except for Tavares, no Islanders forward has shown more improvement this season than the physical 22-year-old. He has become as reliable away from the puck as he is sure to throw a hit or two on any opponent who has the puck.
"He's honestly got enough skill to play anywhere, from the first line on down," said Jay Pandolfo, who has been on the opposite wing with Martin all season long. "He's a real smart player, and he creates space for his linemates. That's the kind of player who's going to keep getting more and more ice time."
On a team that has struggled to score, Martin's total of two goals and four points doesn't stand out. But averaging the least ice time of any regular forward (11:21 per game), Martin is second on the Islanders in shots on goal with 36.
That's more likely an indictment of the other Isles, who should be shooting and scoring more. But Martin has done what's been asked of him, and more, in small ways.
He leads the NHL in hits with 72, though that is a very subjective statistic that varies from arena to arena. Look for his hit totals to level off as the Isles play more games on the road. But he has thrown his body around in a smarter way this season.
"Last year, there were times I got myself out of position to go hit somebody," Martin said. "Now I make sure to throw the body on the forecheck and just keep it within the system."
And as the only true fighter in the lineup now that Trevor Gillies is with Bridgeport, Martin has done his usual standing up for teammates when needed. Jack Capuano has faith in Martin's physical abilities, but the faith the coach showed late in the game Thursday night against the Canadiens probably is more rewarding.
With less than three minutes left, Capuano put together a line to try to preserve the Islanders' one-goal lead. Tavares and Pandolfo were out there and Martin joined them, and those three kept the puck in the Montreal zone and killed off precious time. When the Isles changed lines, the Canadiens pressed and nearly tied the game.