Start with the smoothies. Pretty simple recipe, nothing fancy. Just almond milk, almond butter, bananas, protein supplement and ice, all pulsed together in the players’ lounge and delivered to the Islanders locker room at the conclusion of each home practice. Like on this late-September afternoon, near the end of training camp, as right winger Cal Clutterbuck is mulling over a question about his uniquely persisting—not to mention doggedly persistent—forward line.
“I don’t know. Marty, how would you describe us?” Clutterbuck, 31, pleading for help from left winger Matt Martin, who is seated in the next stall.
“I had to yesterday,” says Martin, 30, referencing a recent interview on the same subject. “So you’re on your own.”
At that moment, as if on cue, the back door opens and Casey Cizikas enters, delicately carrying three plastic cups full of frothy, banana-y beverage. As the trio’s youngest member, the 28-year old center is not only tasked with winning faceoffs, sparking breakouts, supporting forechecks, scoring goals (career-high 20 last season) and performing umpteen other tasks alongside Martin and Clutterbuck. He is also on smoothie duty. (“Gotta take care of my linemates, keep them happy,” Cizikas says later. “But that’s it. If they ask for anything more, they’re getting greedy.”)
Taking a sip, Clutterbuck nods in approval at Cizikas’ concoction and shrugs to a reporter. “I mean, this basically explains it right here,” he says. “Casey does everything for Marty and me, and we enjoy it.” Another sip. “But seriously, I don’t know how to describe it. We’re like any group of people who spend a long time with each other. It helps that we get along off the ice. Our wives get along. We seem to have fallen into it, and it just seems to have worked out well.
“It’s always been like. If the three of us are healthy, and wearing an Islanders uniform, we’re playing together.”
As a general rule, trios don’t last long these days. Whether due to injuries, player movement or routine lineup juggling, instability is inevitable. In this regard, Martin, Cizikas and Clutterbuck are no exception: The band broke apart when Martin signed with Toronto in July ‘16, only to reunite two years later as the Leafs traded him back. Otherwise, though, they have been inseparable, an even more impressive feat given their bottom-six roles. “In this day and age, it’s pretty rare,” Islanders coach Barry Trotz says. “Those are the types of guys who are replaced. But I don’t think there’s too many lines in the league who have the role or the identity that they do.”
Their official debut came on Oct. 10, 2014, when then-Islanders coach Jack Capuano tabbed his new-look fourth line for the opening faceoff of the season-opener. Over the next two years, only the so-called Triplets of Tampa Bay shared more 5-on-5 ice time among all NHL forward combos than Martin-Cizikas-Clutterbuck. “We were just always at the bottom of the board, the three of our names across,” Cluttebuck says. “Didn’t change. You could put it in permanent ink, it just seemed to be there every day.” Combined with nearly 500 more minutes last season—ranked 13th among all NHL combos, via corisca.hockey—the three of them have clocked more than 24 total hours at 5-on-5 over their past three seasons as teammates.
Literally, a full day’s work by each other’s sides.
No catchy nickname has stuck yet, although franchise legend Butch Goring has suggested E=MC, where the E still stands for energy. That is their defining attribute, after all, largely channeled into a swarming forecheck that sparks all the terror of wasps who can hit like semi-trucks. “No one wanted to play against them,” says Trotz, specifically recalling the heavy (and effective) doses of The Einstein Line that he faced behind the Capitals’ bench in their 2015 playoff series. “They’re in-your-face. A little bit of that old-school, ‘80s and ‘90s feel where they’ll bump you around, but there’s speed and skill.”
Less than two weeks after Trotz left Washington and took the Islanders job in June ‘18, Martin was reacquired in exchange for a minor-league goalie. For Martin, who had fallen out of favor with the Leafs, returning to New York promised both a fresh start—“obviously my career got a little bit derailed in Toronto,” he says—and a reassuring familiarity. An admirer of the line since its inception, Trotz had no intention of breaking up a proven commodity. “It was so easy for me,” Martin says, snapping his fingers for emphasis, “to fit right back into what we did before.”
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Clutterbuck adds.
Under Trotz they received even greater responsibility, handling checking assignments against the likes of Sidney Crosby on a nightly basis. “He gave us a chance to prove ourselves, Cizikas says of Trotz. “So we looked at each other and decided, We want to be in that position. We want to be out there in the key times of the game.”
The pleasant surprise was that they also outscored opponents 17–12 at 5-on-5, despite starting an overwhelming majority of faceoffs in the neutral and defensive zones. “I think we’re more focused on making plays than we were before,” says Martin, who had six goals and eight assists. “We were some heat-seeking missiles back then. We still try to be physical. But we want to possess the puck, and put up points. It’s a good dynamic.”
They were a natural fit since the beginning for many reasons. Some were coincidences: All three hail from Ontario, all played junior hockey in the OHL, all logged time in the minors— Martin and Cizikas for exactly 83 games apiece on the Isles’ affiliate, Clutterbuck in the Wild organization—before reaching the NHL. They even share the same agent, Pat Morris of Newport Sports. “They can just finish each other’s sentences,” Morris says.
Of course, none of that would matter if they weren’t compatible on the ice. There Cizikas is the engine-driver, swift to pounce on loose pucks and reliable below the defensive dots. “Even if we get beat,” Martin says, “we know Zeker is behind us to watch our backs.” Martin brings the retro muscle that Trotz enjoys so much, right down to his visorless helmet; Clutterbuck is more of a hybrid of the others, offering a sneaky-smooth shooting release while joining Martin in harassing opposing puck-retrievers. “D-men don’t like getting hit all the time,” Cizikas says. “It’s in the back of their minds: When those two guys step on the ice, that there’s a chance they’re going to get hit and hit hard. That creates a lot of turnovers and puts us in good positions.”
Testimony is readily available. After leaving the Isles in January 2017, Capuano spent two seasons as associate coach in Florida and now holds the same position with Ottawa. “And there’s not one person who will not tell you on those teams, whether it’s the Panthers or the Senators, ‘Damn was that Cizikas line tough to play against,’” Capuano says. “Ask around the league. Sure, you can talk to the former coach who put them together. But talk to players and they’ll tell you, when they see that line on the board, everyone knows they’re coming. They’re coming.”
The long hours aren’t just logged on the ice. Sometime in the middle of last season, “sick and tired of watching Netflix show after Netflix show,” as Clutterbuck says, the trio picked up Apex Legends, the Fortnite-esque video game featuring battle royales between teams of—naturally—three. Pretty soon Martin, Cizikas and Clutterbuck were hauling their portable Xbox systems on road trips and texting calls-to-arms after dinner: I’ll be on in 10 minutes. Anyone landing?
They play just as much when the Isles are home, communicating over headsets from their respective houses in the same Long Island neighborhood. “We get on each other’s case, big-time,” Clutterbuck says. “Always screaming. And we’re terrible. Maybe in five years we’ll be a lot better. But we’re still trying to figure out the team dynamic.” Evidently, much of this is due to Martin’s propensity for freelancing. “He always has some excuse up his sleeve as to why he’s off doing his own thing and forgot to tell us,” Cizikas says, “so that gets us on him even more.”
The blunt dynamic doesn’t go away during games. “It’s entertainment on its own, right there, listening to them on the bench,” Capuano says. Sometimes their banter is light-hearted, little more than ribbing sore spots. “Zeker gets upset about faceoffs, starts banging his stick, we’ll tell him to shut up,” Martin says. “Keep it light. But when it’s time to get serious, we get serious.” Indeed, in the heat of a close game, no criticism is too harsh to levy, no detail too small to nitpick for the good of the line. “We’re very open and upfront with each other,” Cizikas says. “It’s not meant to hurt feelings. It’s meant to make us better. There’s been a couple of battles, but as soon as it’s done, it’s squashed, it’s over, and we move forward. I think it’s what we’re best at.”
As always, there is room for improvement. The faceoff issue might’ve indeed been a sore subject for Cizikas last season; his 49.1% win rate was his lowest since ‘15–16. Martin and Clutterbuck, meanwhile, sought to improve offensively by training with Adam Oates, the Hall-of-Fame center-turned-skills coach, in New York over the summer. “If we capitalize on more of our chances, that might be the one thing that’ll help us,” Cizikas says of the ‘19–20 season, which starts Friday against Washington. “Other than that, it’s just playing the same way.”
Away from the rink, the Martin-Cizikas-Clutterbuck line remains as close as ever. Cizikas stood up at Martin’s wedding in late June, just as Martin once did for him; Clutterbuck earned a shoutout in the groom’s speech. There are weekly dinners, football-watching on Sundays, and golf tournaments for Smilezone, a children’s foundation with which Morris is involved. Top-six winger Josh Bailey often tags along—“He’s like the hopalong buddy for the group,” Clutterbuck says—but other times it’s just those three. “If we have an off-day,” says Martin, “we’re together.”
Maybe the line will stay intact, helping the Islanders take aim at a second straight playoff berth, building off their 48-win, 103-point stunner of a season in ‘18–19. “You never wanted them to break up the first time, and hopefully there’s not a next time,” Morris says. But all trios separate eventually; Martin, Cizikas, Clutterbuck have one, two and three years remaining on their contracts, respectively, none of which have trade protection or a no-movement clause. Even in the worst-case scenario, though, they can always look forward to Tuscany.
Along with Bailey, the trio placed a joint bid at a recent Islanders golf outing and nabbed a getaway package to the picturesque Italian region. They are not sure which offseason they will cash in yet, or whether they will still be linemates when they do, but everyone is already excited. “That’ll be our first official vacation as a group, Clutterbuck says. “Should be fun.”