Paul Martin and the Pittsburgh Penguins have made the Stanley Cup Finals and will take on, well, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Paul Martin. While at one time it might have been expected that the Pens would make the Cup Finals during Martin's 5 year tenure with the team, it never came to fruition. It was difficult watching him depart in free agency as a still capable defender while the team was still very much in need of one, but now it's a tad bittersweet to be making the SCF only to see Martin lining up on the other side.
Martin originally came to Pittsburgh on a 5 year, $25 million contract after spending his first 6 seasons with the New Jersey Devils. Then GM Ray Shero was looking to replace the contributions from Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi that he lost in the 2009 offseason, and he struck quickly when free agency opened in 2010, signing both Martin and Zbynek Michalek to big money deals. But reviews were mixed on Martin early during his time in Pittsburgh. Playing mostly with Michalek over the first two seasons, the pairing struggled on the ice, managing only a 44.4 GF% along with a 53.1 CF% together in over 1,200 minutes. In contrast, Martin by himself over a similar number of minutes posted a 56.4 GF% and 56.5 CF% - elite numbers.
It was clear that Michalek was dragging down the pair, and luckily for the Penguins Shero didn't make any rash moves. Given that he was becoming the whipping boy among the fans and media, Shero offered the opportunity for a trade elsewhere, somewhere where Martin could be better appreciated. To his credit, Martin declined the offer, wanting to honor his commitment in Pittsburgh and win the franchise a Stanley Cup. Shero ended up trading Michalek back to the Coyotes after the 2011-12 season, opening up Martin to play with a better defensive partner.
Of course, that didn't always happen, as Martin found himself on a "shutdown" pairing with Brooks Orpik for a good chunk of his time over his last three seasons in Pittsburgh. While the two did manage a 55.0 GF% to go along with their 48.7 CF%, it wasn't the best use of his talents. When allowed to play with an elite defenseman like Kris Letang, the pairing was stellar. Martin and Letang combined for an absurd 63.9 GF% and 55.9 CF% when used together, and they gave the Penguins an elite pairing that could effectively force the play into the opposition's zone.
The Penguins have lost a lot of defensemen in recent years, including Orpik, Matt Niskanen, and Simon Despres, but Mike Sullivan has done a great job making the players at his disposal work for Pittsburgh. Undoubtedly the Pens would have liked to keep Martin, but given his age and their cap situation it just wasn't in the cards. Now 35, Paul Martin is approaching the downside of his career, but his understated strong play hasn't begun to suffer yet. Playing mostly with Brent Burns, Martin continued the type of success he's demonstrated over the course of his career, managing a 55.1 GF% along with a 51.7 CF%. And now, he can add conference champion to his resume. But unlike in recent years, the Penguins will be attempting to prevent Paul Martin from lifting the Stanley Cup. And Pens fans will have to deal with the conflicted emotions rooting against Martin will cause.