Pat Morris did not really want to speak with me. He’s the agent for Matt Martin, a bruising 20-year old power forward and top-10 Islanders prospect who needs to be signed soon. When I spoke with Matt at prospect minicamp, the young man was a bit on edge about this potential stalemate. It’s the business side of the NHL, and he understands the fans that may eventually love him cannot relate to him right now.
But I put in a few calls to Morris with the goal of sharing an educated view of both sides of this story. He eventually relented, but was very cautious with his words.
We already know that if Matt Martin is not signed by the end of training camp, he’ll play one more season in Sarnia or another town in the Ontario Hockey League. Everyone seems in agreement that Martin will not benefit from another year in the OHL. He needs to begin his pro development in Bridgeport. If Martin is not signed by June 1, 2010, he goes back into the NHL Draft. I could practically feel Morris wincing on the other end of the phone from Toronto at the mere thought. As much as anyone, he wants Martin signed by the team that drafted him.
“The idea of Matt Martin going back into the draft would be inconceivable from the Islanders’ point of view,” said Morris, “and also from Matt’s point of view.”
But it could happen. Drafted in the fifth round by the Islanders in 2008, Martin has become a legitimate NHL prospect. Ask just about any scout in the game and he’ll tell you the 6-3, 210-pound left wing with a frame to knock opponents around and hands to fight and score some goals has an excellent chance of being a big part of the Islanders’ rebuild. The excitable ones hold up Milan Lucic as a comparable, the more cautious ones point to David Clarkson.
My conversation with Morris shed light on what’s really up for debate in this negotiation. Do you sign a player based on where he was drafted, or 100% on the quality of the player?
“Both sides have the ability to assess Matt’s growth as a player in the year since he was drafted,” said Morris. “Garth (Snow) and Ryan (Jankowski) have done an excellent job at the draft the last few years with some picks in the later rounds. But when you attempt to sign a player a full year after he is drafted, it doesn’t matter what round he was picked. This isn’t a slotting system. The goal is to come to an agreement based only on the quality of the player.”
The viewpoint of Morris is a fair one. All that should matter right now is what the Islanders think of Matt Martin as a hockey player in their organization. Same goes for the value Morris believes should be placed on his client. This kind of negotiation happens every day in every walk of life. You try to get what you deserve, and not a penny less. The company gives you what they feel you deserve, and not a penny more. You risk ending up with nothing. The company risks not having you.
In 2007, Atlanta drafted a raw defenseman named Paul Postma in the seventh round. Two years, 37 goals and 136 points with the Calgary Hitmen later, the Thrashers gave Postma the contract of a first-round blue-chipper. Time will tell if they made a wise investment. The Detroit Red Wings have built a consistent contender with contributions from several drafted and developed late-round picks who earned big-buck Entry Level deals.
If you’re wondering what’s the difference between Martin and prospect Justin DiBenedetto – the high scorer drafted by the Islanders a round later – Martin can go back in the draft. Other than going to Europe, DiBenedetto didn’t have any leverage.
Is Martin’s upside as a dime-a-dozen tough fourth-liner? Is it as a second or third-line power forward with significant intangibles a la Lucic and Nystrom? Most of all, are the Islanders willing to risk watching Martin thrive on another NHL team? These are the kind of tough business decisions you’re faced with when you draft well.
Martin, with the counsel of his agent, also has to make a grown-up decision. Welcome to professional sports, kid.