It was a chance for a refresher, but one newcomer to the system this season already was feeling pretty comfortable.
“He’s been great,” defenseman Kris Letang said of his partner of late, Paul Martin. “He fits in really well with the system because he’s a guy who goes back for pucks, makes plays.
“He’s a patient guy with the puck, always a good pass.”
Martin, a two-way defenseman who played New Jersey’s defense-oriented style, signed with the Penguins as a free agent in July after Sergei Gonchar signed with Ottawa.
“They’re two guys that aren’t moving a lot,” Letang said. “They are reading the play, moving the puck. In that way, they are similar.”
But Martin is not Gonchar reincarnate. He doesn’t have to be to fit in nicely as a top-four defenseman.
He’s one of just three defensemen who has played all 15 games for the Penguins going into their game tonight against Boston, averages a team-high 24 minutes, 40 seconds of ice time and is overcoming what was a tough transition from the way the Devils play.
“I think at the beginning, it kind of was,” Martin said. “And as a team we were still trying to find our identity and having a tough time sometimes. I think we’ve been learning that what makes it successful is not always the flashy things, just getting the puck up ice and getting it to our forwards and trying to get it in the [offensive] zone.
“I’m learning. We’re learning. It’s been an adjustment over these first 15 games, but I think we’re going in the right direction now.”
Coach Dan Bylsma attributes that to a more fine-tuned defense.
“There is an adjustment, but even in the last three games from our defensemen as a whole … making sense out of how we want to play is a big part of the execution of it,” he said. “Anybody can talk about the X’s and O’s. They’re not new to anyone, but the concept of how we want to play and how we have to execute and where the puck has to go for that to happen is something that Paul and [fellow newcomer Zbyneck Michalek] and some of our other defensemen are just now doing, making the step to getting that puck in the [right] area.
“It needs to be at the right time so that we can play the way we want to play with the speed, with the support we want to play with.”
Being paired with Letang means Martin, 29, often has to be the stay-at-home half a little more because Letang, 23, seems to be blossoming into the kind of potent offensive defenseman the Penguins have projected all along.
“Early in the year, I think I was up the ice a little more, just because I just got here and was just going,” Martin said. “I think now we’ve started to try to — I don’t want to say take turns, but feed off of each other and realize if he’s up the ice, someone has to be back. Lately, he’s been up a lot. We can’t have both of us up there.”
Martin doesn’t mind being that half of the equation.
“For me to play with him has been fun,” he said of Letang. “He likes to skate and move, and he’s all over the ice, making plays — which he should be because he helps create opportunities for our team and he’s got a great shot.”
Partnering with Letang has not stifled Martin’s productivity.
He has just one goal, but with eight points in 15 games he is on pace for a career-high 43 points.
So much for a difficult adjustment with the Penguins.
“Here it’s definitely a little bit more aggressive all over the ice, but as far as getting the puck up, there’s still the timing factor,” Martin said.
He has learned that sometimes, rather than passing to your partner, defensemen in this system can make a breakout pass even when a forward seems to be covered because the Penguins’ skilled forwards can get behind the defense. What usually would be an ill-advised or dangerous pass can be a good play with this team.
What has been a little more difficult, Martin said, is the adjustment all new Penguins players face — navigating Pittsburgh.
“All the bridges and bypasses … I’m starting to learn my way around to places I need to go,” said Martin, who is abandoning the hotel life to move into a rented home.
The Penguins’ system isn’t so tough by comparison.
“He’s really comfortable with it,” Letang said. “I think when he’s 100 percent comfortable with it, he’s going to be an unbelievable player.”