With his team on the penalty kill and the score level in the third period of Saturday night’s game against No. 4 Boston University, Michigan hockey coach Red Berenson put defenseman Luke Martin on the ice. Martin, known for his physical blocking style, was tasked with maintaining the 1-1 score for two minutes while the 18th-ranked Wolverines played with a one-man disadvantage.
Once the power play began, two Boston University players took shots that went just wide before forward Kieffer Bellows recovered the puck for one more opportunity. Bellows slapped a shot hoping for a go-ahead goal, but Martin’s 6-foot-3 frame deflected it and the puck sailed away. Bellows had another chance, but Michigan freshman goaltender Jack LaFontaine saved it.
It was Martin’s fifth block of the game and his 25th on the season, both team highs.
“I think it’s something he’s learned before he got here, and now he realizes how important it is here, too, to be able to block shots,” Berenson said Monday. “He’s got a smart stick. He reaches with his stick defensively. He’s good and is learning how to play physical at this level. He uses his strength and his size, and it’s all part of development.”
Added Martin: “(There’s) not that much technique. It’s about having the will to get in front of it. I think at the end of the day, I (block shots) so when I get back to the bench everyone’s going to give me a pat on the back.”
As the youngest player on a youthful Michigan team, Martin experienced some nervousness early in the season. Berenson believes that Martin’s experience with the United States National Team Development Program last year gives the freshman momentum and confidence to play in rowdy college arenas all over the country, just as he did last year.
To help ease this transition, on all road trips, freshmen room with upperclassmen. For the team’s trips to the East Coast and Arizona State, Martin has stayed with junior defenseman Sam Piazza, whom he credits with easing his early-season jitters.
“(Piazza’s) a very calming influence,” Martin said. “Especially for our first couple away games I was getting a little nervous, and I think he could tell. He was very good at calming me down. He reminded me to trust myself and trust my game. Obviously, he’s a very calm player so that carried over, and it was a huge help.”
Added Berenson: “A veteran player can help the young player, he can just remind him of whether it’s our systems, or what we do in this case, or what we do in that case, or in that situation. It’s just so (the freshmen) have somebody experienced with them, to show them that they’re playing the right way. If you get two young guys together, and especially if one of them gets rattled, they don’t have an older player to settle them down and give them some leadership.”
While many of Michigan’s wingers from last season graduated or left for the NHL, many of its defensive mainstays remain in Ann Arbor. As a result, Berenson pairs his younger players with veterans on the ice, especially early in the season. Through his first 10 games, Martin has played with Piazza, senior Nolan De Jong and senior Kevin Lohan. Martin calls it “a treat” to play with these veterans and believes each of them bring different aspects to assist Martin as he grows as a player.
Last Friday night, the Wolverines scored two power-play goals within one minute. The second was aided by Martin, who Berenson terms “the quarterback” of the power play.
“When I’m up top, I keep it simple,” Martin said. “I don’t really try to overcomplicate things. I’m good at getting shots through to the net, which generates offense. The guys on my flanks and in the middle, they complement me and they cover me when I make mistakes real well.”
Martin is the only freshman defenseman to have played in every game thus far, a testament to the confidence that Berenson has in him. Martin looks to improve as the season marches forward, displaying strength in shot blocking and for having the knack of being at the right place at the right time — he leads the Wolverines in plus/minus with a whopping plus-eight.
“I think he’s making progress,” Berenson said. “I think he’s getting more confidence, getting experience. I think he’s learning what it takes to play well at this level. I think (defenseman) is the hardest position to come in and play as a freshman because you’re playing against really good forwards on other teams and I think he’s holding his own so far.”