-- EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Not long after Los Angeles Kings GM Dean Lombardi was announced as a finalist for GM of the year, we were sitting with defenseman Alec Martinez talking about skeet shooting and the journey to self-discovery as an NHL player.
It sounds like two separate things, but it's really not.
Seriously. Bear with us.
The building of a team is a constant exercise in self-discovery, especially if you're talking about building a winner like Lombardi has done with the Kings. That journey may have obvious signposts along the way, like the Stanley Cup the Kings won in 2012, but it never really ends.
Martinez illustrates this journey, as do the other young Kings defensemen who have emerged as key contributors since 2012.
Assistant coach John Stevens noted that during that magical 2012 run, the Kings used pretty much the same lineup every single night. The team was healthy and veterans like Rob Scuderi (now in Pittsburgh), Willie Mitchell and Matt Greene provided important depth behind star minute-muncher Drew Doughty.
"It's kind of been different the last couple of years with some of the injuries we've sustained on the back end, so we've really had to ask more of our young guys and fill those gaps by committee," Stevens told ESPN.com.
Martinez, who played youth hockey in Northern California before moving to Michigan, and fellow youngsters Jake Muzzin and Slava Voynov have followed a trend set by Doughty in following a steep learning curve at the game's most demanding position.
As Doughty's game has grown and broadened and the demands on him have likewise grown and broadened, it has fallen to the younger defensemen to take on more responsibility. One is not possible without the other; it is the yin and yang of a team's growth.
"He [Doughty] probably deserves as much credit as anybody for helping these young guys along," Stevens said. "Those guys that you talked about, Muzz and Marty and Slava, I think they're guys that can help us offensively but Drew's a great example of a guy that's a really good offensive player that puts his defense first," Stevens said.
"We're not asking these young guys to be young guys anymore. We're asking these young guys to be good players that help us win."
In Game 2 of the Western Conference finals, it was Muzzin's power-play goal in the third period, set up by Martinez, that proved to be the winner in the Kings' shocking 6-2 come-from-behind victory over the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks that evened the conference finals at a game apiece.
Doughty and Voynov were in on the tying goal moments earlier, and so it goes.
While the Blackhawks' defensive unit has come in for heady praise this playoff year for its skill and mobility up and down the lineup, there is an element of the Kings' defensive group that is sometimes overlooked.
Longtime NHL netminder John Garrett, now a broadcast analyst in Canada, said there is a lot that impresses about the young Kings defenders.
"You watch this L.A. young defense and Muzzin scores a goal the other night, why? Because he read the play so well and he was down deep. He knew exactly where to be," Garrett said. "Martinez is a good skater and makes good plays too. I think it's one of those things you get that confidence that you can be a puck-moving team. [Coach] Darryl Sutter has that reputation that they're an all-defensive team but they're big and they move the puck well."
It is the kind of team construct that separates the elite teams from the rest of the flotsam and jetsam in the NHL.
"I really think that's the difference between the elite teams [and the rest]. The elite teams in the league that's the difference is they have those defensemen; it's not just off the glass and out, it's puck control," Garrett said.
"You make that first pass tape to tape and you still have puck control. You look around, the other teams they might have one defenseman that can do it but they don't have a group. And I think that's the difference between the final four this year and every other year, you get that group of defensemen and that's what you have to [do] is nurture that skill where you can make a play and control the puck rather than glass and out."
But getting to that point, learning the craft and learning to accept the responsibilities of getting better, well, that's never easy for just one player, let alone a group, which makes what the Kings are doing so impressive.
"I think it's probably the biggest step we've had with all of our young defensemen is just being able to be honest with themselves," Stevens explained. "I think they know us well enough as a coaching staff that we're not going to be critical, we're just going to be honest and tell them when they're doing well and tell them when they need to be better and how they need to be better.
"I think all the guys you're talking about have really been honest with their own games and knowing when they play well and why and when they don't play well and why."
As for Martinez, Stevens said he specifically has learned not to be so hard on him.
"I think in the past, Marty's let maybe mistakes or bad plays hang with him a little too long," Stevens said. "I think he's learned to [deal] with that better. I don't think a bad play hangs with him, a bad shift doesn't turn into a bad period and a bad period doesn't turn into a bad game. I think he's made great strides in that area [and] I think he would tell you that too.
"It's usually just because he cares so much, but I think he's learned to let it go and go on to make a good play after a bad play. Quite honestly, especially at this time of year, you need to be able to do that."
Martinez played high school hockey in Michigan and then played three seasons of college hockey with Miami (Ohio). Along the way he was drafted 95th overall in 2007 by the Kings, honing his craft with the team's AHL affiliate in Manchester, New Hampshire, before graduating full-time to the Kings in 2010-11.
"As an athlete or really anything, any person in general no matter what they do, I think you constantly try to improve," Martinez said. "From management on, ever since I've been here, I think this is my seventh, eighth year with the organization, they do a good job of helping you develop as a player. Working on things both on and off the ice whether it's in the weight room or working on things on the ice you know all the fundamentals we work on all the time. We've got a heck of a development staff that work with us a lot."
Thoughtful and well-spoken, Martinez said part of the learning curve isn't just the nuts and bolts of playing the game but adjusting to the mental challenges.
"One of the biggest things that I've learned since I turned pro; beforehand, sometimes it's hard when hockey's the only thing you do. When I played in college I always had class and I had things to get my mind off the game. It's important to be able to step away and step back and kind of look at the bigger picture sometimes. During breaks, the Olympics break, it gives you an opportunity to get away from the game a little bit mentally and then kind of refocus and sit back and reflect. I think that's definitely a part of it," the 26-year-old said.
"There's a time and a place, playoffs probably isn't the best place. If you're reflecting then it means that you didn't do a good enough job. As a player, you've got to be able to learn to step back and take a big-picture look at things. I think self-evaluation is important. You can't get too hard on yourself but you also can't get too full of yourself."
So, what does Martinez do to step away, hit the reset button?
Well, friends, family, skeet shooting.
You know, the normal stuff.
"I think it's different for every guy. Every guy's got a maybe a hobby or something he can do to free your mind," Martinez said. "I don't mean to sound like a hippie or anything, I don't mean that, but I think anything that occupies your time that you enjoy. For me whether it's hanging out with friends and family or doing activities, shooting skeet, if you really want to get your anger out, or go to the batting cages.
"I've done that stuff. But it's not a regular hobby it's not like, 'Oh I'm having a tough day I'm going to go shoot guns.' It's not that at all," he quickly added.
Still, being self-aware is obviously crucial to not just Martinez's development but that of Muzzin and Voynov, who have combined for seven goals and 13 assists thus far in the playoffs.
"I think it's important to be able to do that. It's definitely a learning experience, especially for young guys, it's part of figuring it out I think. Here I am saying this acting like I have it all figured out and I really do not. I've been around for a few years but I'm still learning," Martinez said.
Still learning, still growing, hmmmm, sounds just like this Kings team.