As a sports fan, you only get to see what the camera shows you. Whether it’s a highlight-reel goal, a turnover at center ice, or a player chatting postgame on the latest result, we very rarely see the interaction between players away from the bright lights.
When I took over at NYI Hockey Now, all interaction was over Zoom. The practices were closed, and for someone relatively new to the “beat reporter” position, it was a much different world than I expected. But it was the only world I knew, graduating and working during the pandemic.
Eventually, the New York Islanders and many other organizations cut back on the strict rules, and although locker rooms were never opened, we were able to attend practices and eventually had in-person press conferences.
For the first time in my career, I was able to see players away from the spotlight. We saw the laughter at practices, the inside jokes, and more importantly the work ethic of these athletes to improve upon their skillsets, whether that player was a star or someone trying to crack the lineup on a more consistent basis.
Matt Martin, a 13-year NHL veteran, and Ross Johnston, a six-year vet, both play a similar role for the New York Islanders. Both have no issue throwing their weight around, and when their skates hit the ice, their forechecking prowess and ability to grind away at opponents makes them valuable assets.
Matt Martin underwent offseason ankle surgery last summer and was not one-hundred percent to start the 2021-22 campaign as Johnston played in his place. And even when Martin did return after the first two games, there were times when New York Islanders former coach Barry Trotz elected to go with Johnston and scratch Martin.
On Oct. 26, Ross Johnston agreed to a four-year extension worth $4.4 million ($1.1 M AAV). It had fans scratching their heads as Johnston was just seen as a depth player for the Islanders and not someone who had the skill to be a staple in the lineup.
On the surface, one could look at the fact that Johnston is a younger, stronger, faster Martin and that Johnston’s growth was a threat to Martin’s playing time and the contract was an insurance policy that if anything happened to Martin, Johnston could slot in and play the same type of game.
But despite what the surface showed, below the surface, you could see how close of a friendship Martin and Johnston have.
Martin, who is six years older than Johnston, gave off a big brother vibe. A brother that wanted nothing but success for his younger pal as ne played the mentor role.
More often than not, when the ice surface cleared after a team practice or a morning skate, Matt Martin remained on the ice with Ross Johnston, working on drills and giving advice. It did not matter that the two played the same role. There was a common, shared goal which was to help the New York Islanders any way they could.
In 2021-22, Ross Johnston played in 32 games for the second time in his career. As mentioned, he filled in for Martin, but also when Cal Clutterbuck went down for the season, Johnston took his spot on the fourth line alongside Martin and Casey Cizikas.
Despite not collecting many points, Johnston’s seven points (two goals and five assists) were a new career-high.
Johnston all alone… GOAL. pic.twitter.com/mu9lnvEKXP
— New York Islanders (@NYIslanders) January 31, 2022
He averaged a career-high 10:16 TOI and set a career-high in blocks with 16 as he learned how to be a much more responsible player in his own zone.
“I think he’s grown a lot, especially when Cal (Clutterbuck) went down we were playing a lot of games together.,” Matt Martin said on Ross Johnston. We did have a good relationship off the ice, and we haven’t played many games together in our careers because we do play kind of similar games, so it was fun to play with him and watch him kind of grow as a player. ”
“I think he works extremely hard on his game as well and is always looking to get better. He grew a lot, and he’ll continue to grow this offseason. He’s a valuable piece of this team. Being able to slot in and play and when he does play he always plays well, as well.”
For Ross Johnston, having Matt Martin to learn from is special.
“He’s done it for a long time. He’s a guy that I’m fortunate enough that when I’m out of the lineup, I can watch and pick up little habits that I can implement in my own game,” Johnston said on Martin. “Our relationship off the ice is pretty special, and that obviously helps myself when I do get on the ice. And I’ve been fortunate enough over the last month (of the season) to play with him.”
“And in games with him and Casey (Cizikas) you’re able to talk through certain situations that maybe you see one way and they see the other way and just little plays that you might not pick up on playing with someone else that I guess they see…I don’t know how to put it into words, but it can help me take my game to the next level. Just simplify things and make things easier throughout the game.”
All the players on the New York Islanders talk about how tight-knit a group this is. And when you see relationships like this, between two players who are in competition for playing time, that just shows where the priorities lie.