EL SEGUNDO, CA — So far this season, the Los Angeles Kings have been a surprise, but mostly for the wrong reasons.
Indeed, the Kings were expected to be among the top teams in the Western Conference. But after a stretch in November when they lost seven out of eight games, and an even more brutal stretch from late December through most of January when they lost ten out of twelve games, the Kings are struggling just to stay in the hunt for a playoff spot in the hyper-competitive Western Conference, even though they are 5-0-1 in their last six games, and 6-3-1 in their last ten.
Perhaps as big a surprise has been the play of young defenseman Alec Martinez, 23, who not only failed to make the Kings roster out of training camp, but was also a big question mark in terms of ever making the jump to the National Hockey League level.
Like most young prospects, Martinez, who was selected by the Kings in the fourth round (95th overall) in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, toiled in the minor leagues for a couple of seasons, and improved year-to-year. But when the 2010-11 NHL season began, Martinez was not in the Kings’ immediate plans, with seven or eight defensemen ahead of him on the depth chart. As such, he wound up playing twenty games with the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League, the Kings’ primary minor league affiliate, to start the season.
Despite the adversity, Martinez was not deterred. Rather, he just worked harder to improve, and wound up leading the Monarchs in scoring with five goals and eleven assists for 16 points when he was called up by the Kings on November 23, 2010.
“I just went down to Manchester and tried to focus on getting better every day,” said the 6-0, 205-pound native of Rochester Hills, Michigan. “I know it sounds cliche, but that’s the best way to go about it.”
“I just tried to focus on my game a little bit, take what management told me at the end of training camp into account, and just try to play my best down there,” added Martinez, who has scored three goals and has tallied five assists for eight points in 33 games with the Kings this season. “Fortunately, I was given a chance up here. I’ve just got to keep it going, keep doing the little things.”
Martinez has seized the opportunity, earning himself a regular shift on the blue line and on the second power play unit.
“It’s really nice for the organization to see a guy who’s come through the development process over the years and sticking in [the Kings’ lineup],” said head coach Terry Murray. “We really like his game. He brings a lot in the skill department, he does a great job in his one-on-one [coverage], he has very strong legs, he’s able to pin guys and seal guys off.”
“I see his game being taken up to the next level just about every game that he’s playing, and he’s breaking through in the emotional part of the game, which has always been the stop sign for him,” added Murray.
Martinez is now seeing significant ice time, becoming a fixture in the lineup because he rarely hesitates, makes good decisions with and without the puck, and uses his speed to move the puck out of the defensive zone and up the ice well.
To be sure, the Alec Martinez that was seen during training camp is very different from the current edition.
“Probably more on the confidence side of things,” said Murray. “His skill has not changed. He came into camp in great shape. But when you play at the NHL level, it becomes attitude. It becomes the emotional part of it. You’ve got to really believe in yourself, and have a little swagger in your stride to be a pro at this level, and he’s starting to find that.”
“Just the experience and confidence, knowing what it’s like,” Martinez noted. “Getting put into a lot of different situations has helped me a lot. I’ve learned a lot, both on and off the ice this year. We’ve got a pretty good leadership group, a defensive corps I can watch, day in and day out, and try to learn stuff—I can pick up little things from them.”
“Just being here, knowing what it’s about, and having the experience has helped out a lot,” Martinez added.
Martinez has a long way to go before anyone can say he has “made it” to the NHL level to stay. That said, as his confidence builds, other things begin to fall into place.
“I don’t think there’s one or two things in particular that I’ve gotten better at,” said Martinez. “I’ve gotten a lot better at the mental part of the game.”
“I’ve made my mistakes up here, but I feel like I’ve learned from them and I’ve bounced back from it. That’s probably the biggest thing for me, having that consistency and that attitude.”