With just one pre-season game remaining on the schedule, the Flames have a couple of hopefuls still kicking around camp. Jordan Henry and Derek Smith are the guys on the back-end, although their presence has as much to do with the injuries to Cory Sarich and Brett Carson than anything else.
Things are much more interesting up front however. Given how Brent Sutter has managed lines through the exhibition round, there’s reason to think Matt Stajan is in a dogfight for his spot on the roster with guys like Roman Horak, Paul Byron and perhaps even Lance Bouma. There is also the persistent question of what the Flames will choose to do with pugilists like Raitis Ivanans, P3L and Guillame Desbiens.
Ignoring the pugilist problem for now, the Stajan vs. Horak et al battle is the most pressing one at the moment. The issue is decidedly weightier than, say, TJ Brodie appearing for a three game cup of coffee last October for one primary reason: demoting Stajan is probably something that can’t be undone.
But first, let’s assess the bubble players:
The erstwhile Leaf has twice scored 50+ points in the NHL and is in the meaty part of his career arc at 27 yers old. In an alternate universe, Stajan is the prohibitive favorite to center Jarome Iginla this season and pool analysts are projecting him to set career highs this season.
Stajan was force fed to Brent by his older brother when Darryl became unhinged near the end of his tenure in Calgary. Stajan was the centerpiece of the Phanuef trade and was hasitly re-signed to what looks like an ill-considered contract shortly after he was acquired. He spent the rest of the 2009-10 on Iginla’s line and mostly looked in over his head.
Stajan began the next year on the Flames top line between the captain and Alex Tanguay and managed a relatively decent scoring rate for the first month or so before things went off the rails. When Darryl was booted from the big chair, Brent eagerly demoted Stajan down the depth chart – a descent that was perpetuated by the fact that Matt couln’t manage a compelling performance no matter where he landed in the line-up. By the end of the season he was relegated to fourth line duty, with even David Moss becoming a preferred option down the middle for Calgary’s bench boss. As a result, Stajan finished up with his worst stats line since 2005-06 (his sophomore season) and looking for all the world like the organizations newest albatross contract.
Stajan is probably better than he’s showed in Flames colors. His PP time has completely dried up in town and his underlying numbers, while mediocre, also weren’t terrible last year as well. He could be a capable enough middle-rotation on most NHL teams.
Unfortunately, the Flames have a veritable cornucopia of middle-tier centerman (Jokinen, Morrison, Backlund, Moss, etc.). Although Stajan is the most expensive of the lot, he is also the least trusted by the coaching staff currently. In the ideal circumstances, a rebound by Stajan wouldn’t be out of the question – that is, if he wasn’t battling for ice time with so many other, similar players.
The "guy from the Tim Erixon trade" is entering his first professional season. Ryan Howse’s linemate in junior last season, Horak has come out of nowhere to challenge for a position on the team. Although he hasn’t managed notable scoring totals on the preseason, Horak has displayed good hands and instincts with the puck on his stick and looks to have decent abilities along the boards. His youth, lack of experience and the small sample size against marginal opposition in the exibition round make him an unknown commodity right now. Like Brodie last year, it’s entirely possible that Horak will be immediately overwhelmed by the real thing should he make the final cut.
Acquired in the Regehr swap, Byron made a big splash in his first game versus the Canucks split squad, but has sort of petered out since the flashy debut. Small and agile, Byron has a coupel seasons of pro hockey under his belt in the AHL. He also had a cup of coffee with the Buffalo Sabres last year and was considered one of their best prospects before being dealt. He has slowy drifted down the training camp depth chart since the initial contest and ended up on the Flames 4th line last night against the Islanders.
More about grit and defense than the offense, Bouma is a bigger bodied player in his second pro season who can play both wing and center. A captain in his junior days, Bouma is a big hitter and capable checker who can also skate relatively well for a depth forward. He saw some action with the Flames last year owing to a spate of injuries and often didn’t look terribly out of place on the fourth line.
If Sutter and Feaster deem one of Horak, Bouma or Byron to be a superior option on opening day, it’s probable the team will have to demote Stajan to make room for his usurper. The organization takes on all sorts of risks if they choose to go that route however.
Not only will Stajan be paid $4.5 million in real dollars to ride buses for the Abbotsford Heat, he essentially becomes impossible to recall since it would expose him to re-entry waivers. If another club claims Stajan after he’s recalled, it would leave the Flames on the hook for half of his salary/cap hit for the remainder of his contract.
The cost would be $1.75M in dead cap space for the rest of the season and two more years hence. That may not sound like a whole lot, but consider the fact as many as 10 current Flames players won’t even make that much this coming season. Also, the price of Stajan’s replacement has to included in the bottom-line – even a mimum wage forward bumps the price of a Stajan re-entry waiver claim to about 2.23M in cap space for the club.
A demotion to the AHL would almost certainly sever the relationship between player and organization as well. Few veteran NHLers persist with a franchise that demotes them; Im sure it kinda feels like being paid by your ex-wife to leave the room so she can be alone with her new lover. Stajan is a professional and it’s business, of course, but there’s only so hard a guy can kicked in the groin without taking it personally.
So if Stajan is cut this October, his time in Calgary is done. His value as a tradable asset will plummet and it will be next to impossible to revive a relationship the player or hope for any future value from his deal. The choices become: pay Stajan his salary to play for the Heat and hope he can be traded for pennies on the dollar to some cap-floor team at some point in the future or; expose him to re-entry waivers, hope someone picks him up and then eat almost $2 million in wasted cap space until 2014.
Not the best of scenarios.