Islanders' Cal Clutterbuck and Matt Martin getting physical at historic pace as NHL's career hits leaders

Cal Clutterbuck of the Islanders collides with Sean Couturier of the Philadelphia Flyers during the third period of a game at UBS Arena on Nov. 25, 2023. Credit: Jim McIsaac

The hits just keep on coming for Cal Clutterbuck and Matt Martin, linemates for the Islanders who share a quirky but meaningful statistical distinction.

Sure, they might be a couple of fourth-line wings who are not exactly household names around the NHL, but their numbers tell the tale.

Clutterbuck is the all-time leader in “hits,” a statistic considered official starting with the 2005-06 season, with 3,897. Martin is second with 3,777.

Matt Martin checks Zach Whitecloud of the Vegas Golden Knights at UBS Arena. Credit: Jim McIsaac

There’s more: Martin owns the top three as well as four of the top five single-season totals, peaking with 382 in 2014-15. Martin and Clutterbuck have combined for eight of the top 11 single-season totals on record and 13 of the top 32.

Clutterbuck ranks third this season with 141 hits.

The active player closest to them on the career list is Alex Ovechkin, with 3,544.

But Ovechkin is one of the best players in NHL history, hits merely being a part of his elite game. For Clutterbuck, 36, and Martin, 34, hits are their calling card, both statistically and simply from watching them play.

There is a reason their longtime unit, which also includes center Casey Cizikas, is called the “Identity Line.”

If that identity is illustrated by those nearly 4,000 hits apiece, they are happy to embrace the statistical evidence.

“To me, the stat and being the one who’s got the most, it means that I’ve been doing it longer and more consistently than anyone else to this point,” Clutterbuck told Newsday.

“So for me, who takes pride in playing the game hard, the right way, I think it’s sort of a constant reminder and affirmation that I need to continue to play the game that way in order to be effective.”

Martin told Newsday, “We’ve played a lot of years and I think we’ve stuck with doing it that way for a long time. I think if either of us stopped doing that, we’d no longer be in the league.

“So it’s just part of our job and our responsibility and like I said, we take a lot of pride in what we do.”

Clutterbuck said having the No. 2 career leader a few lockers away from him is a bonus.

“[Martin] might hold the record when it’s all said and done,” Clutterbuck said. “He’s just a very hard-nosed, consistent player. I think both of us just take a lot of pride in the way we play the game.

“So if that stat is an indication, you can argue it either way, but I don’t care.”

What Clutterbuck was referencing there is that hits are a subjective category compared to goals, assists and other hockey basics.

“The way they keep giveaways and takeaways and a million other stats they have these days, they’re all subjective,” Clutterbuck said. “Aside from goals and assists that are tangible and reviewable, I think you can argue most stats are subjective.”

Martin said some nights “you feel like you ran into 15 people and you get two [hits],” and then the next night it could be the reverse.

“But I think that balances out as well,” Martin said. “Obviously, Cal is a very physical player and I consider myself a very physical player and other guys near the top of that list I would consider to be the most physical guys in the league.”

While Clutterbuck and Martin dominate the career and season lists, they have only five of the top 102 one-game hits totals, another illustration of their consistency.

So, what is a hit?

Russell Levine, NHL group vice president for statistics and information, said off-ice arena officials are given definitions and examples to guide them. But it is not easy.

“As you would imagine, it is more subjective than some of the other stats we have,” Levine said. “So we’ve attempted to define it and give them guidelines for what we’re looking for.”

That is, he said, “forceful body-to-body contact that is legal . . . Obviously, this is not completely black-and-white, and people observing contact may feel differently about it.

“But that is the essence of what we're looking for. We don't want just a shove or a lean against the wall or pinning down a player against the wall. We're looking for forceful body-to-body contact.”

Given the subjectivity, it is natural to wonder whether some arenas dole out more hits than others, even though the statistics crews are hired by the league.

A 2021 study in “The Win Column,” a Calgary-based site, broke down potential arena biases for counting hits and discovered some significant differences. But Islanders home games came out slightly below average in their generosity.

“We are constantly monitoring, auditing, checking,” Levine said. “What we seek in all statistics we collect and all statistics the off-ice officials collect is consistency from arena to arena.

“Obviously, humans are involved there. There's never going to be perfection, and we'll always be trying to get better.”

Adding to the challenge is that hits are recorded by statisticians in real time in a fast-paced sport.

Such collisions were tracked widely as early as the late 1990s, but when the league in 2017 released a dynamic stats database for its 100th anniversary, it determined ’05-06 was the first season for which hits were compiled consistently and completely.

So that is when the tally officially began, just in time for Clutterbuck and Martin to do their thing. Clutterbuck made his NHL debut in 2007, Martin in 2010.

All those collisions add up. Clutterbuck has not played in more than 59 games in a regular season since 2018-19. Martin played in 71 and 81 games the past two seasons but missed significant time in the previous four.

“It takes a toll on the body,” Martin said.

Clutterbuck agreed, but he views himself as a throwback. He played his first league game as a 19-year-old with Minnesota.

“It’s a big part of the game and it’s a part of the game that is not as prevalent as it used to be,” Clutterbuck said of physical play.

“Luckily for me, I grew up in an age when you hit when you were 10 years old and came in the league and everyone was delivering hits. I consider myself fortunate to have come up in that time.”

Clutterbuck and Martin are set to be free agents after the season. Cizikas is signed through 2026-27. So it is unclear whether the “Identity Line” will lose its Islanders identity soon. But its place in team and league lore is secure.

“I think when we look back on our careers,” Martin said, “the three of us, we take a lot of pride in the way we played the game every night, and the way we prepared ourselves to play it again the next night.”

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