- Scott Burnside, NHL
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Wonder what it's like to be a player about to step through the looking glass of free agency for the first time?
Well, imagine a giant sheet of unblemished paper. And you're holding the marker. Only you get just one chance to draw the picture you want.
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"It's a little nerve-racking," defenseman Paul Martin told ESPN.com late Wednesday afternoon. "There's a little bit of everything. I'm a little nervous because I've only ever played for one team in my career."
A decade ago, the New Jersey Devils made Martin the 62nd overall pick in the NHL draft. After three years at the University of Minnesota (he was born in Minneapolis and spends his offseasons in the state), Martin joined the Devils full-time during the 2003-04 season, the season after New Jersey's last Stanley Cup championship.
In the six seasons that have followed, Martin's Devils have never advanced beyond the second round, and stories of the team's glory years are just that, stories. And so, Martin stands at a kind of crossroads.
Martin is single and has no children, so he does not have to consider factors like schools and moving a family. In some ways, his decision is the purest of all: strictly about the game and his place in it. More to the point, becoming a free agent provides the rare moment when an athlete can control his place in the game.
Martin is unequivocal -- he loves New Jersey and has spoken to president and GM Lou Lamoriello about returning to the Devils. But there is also something intoxicating about the anticipation of something new, a different city, a different team, a different role, and perhaps a better chance to win. "There are so many different factors," he said.
When the free-agent market opens at noon ET on Thursday, Martin will be among the most sought-after defensemen along with Anton Volchenkov, Sergei Gonchar and Dan Hamhuis (whose rights are currently owned by the Pittsburgh Penguins). He is smart, moves the puck well and, at age 29, would easily fill a leadership role in whatever NHL dressing room might await him. Were it not for a broken forearm that did not heal properly this past season, Martin would have been a shoo-in to make the 2010 U.S. Olympic team. In fact, GM Brian Burke held off until the last minute to replace Martin.
While there is comfort in staying with what he knows in New Jersey, there is also the understandable desire to know just how he is regarded beyond the walls of the Devils' dressing room.
"It's also a little nerve-racking," he said of trying to gauge the interest in your own talents. "Who would want you to help on their blue line?"
Shortly after noon ET on Thursday, Martin will begin to learn the answers to those questions and start to draw the picture of what the next phase of his career and life will look like.
12dScott Burnside and Craig Custance