This is not an article I could’ve imagined writing at the 4th Line Blog when the Trade happened in early 2010. Don’t get me wrong- I didn’t hate the Phaneuf for Stajan/Hagman etc. trade at the time, but I never really imagined the Flames would get to a point where I’d have to make an argument for Stajan as the number one center on the Flames roster.
So how do the Flames arrive at a point where the number one center should be one of the most maligned players in recent history? Let’s count it off:
1. He’s All The Flames Got
It’s not like there’s a whole lotta options. For definitive NHL players, you have Matty Franchise and Mikael Backlund. Jiri Hudler can play center, but it’s generally accepted he’ll line up down the left side.
Whoever else plays center will be picked from a handful of unproven players and borderline NHL players including Sean Monahan, Corban Knight, Blair Jones, Max Reinhart, Max Reinhart, and Roman Horak. What does that mean? It means Matt Stajan is one of the two best proven centers on the Flames roster.
2. He’s a Better Fit for the Job
If we isolate the candidates to Stajan and Backlund, we end up with two very different players with different capabilities. Lord knows I’ve been stumping for Mickis for a long time- and this isn’t to disparage his capabilities at all.
The fact is, using Backlund in an offense first role is a waste of his talent. Backlund is a low event player who’s incredibly defensively responsible and drives the puck forward. He’s the Calgary Frans Nielsen, as Kent pointed out, and with regards to the first line center role this quote is especially important: "Like Nielsen, Backlund probably doesn’t have a huge offensive ceiling, but if he can start scoring 40+ points while keeping the puck in the offensive zone in all situations, he’ll be a key contributor to the Flames".
Backlund’s job is shutting down the best players on every other team – not setting up the best on his own.
3. A Youth Movement Doesn’t Need to Move Immediately
There’s a lot of very appropriate hype around the arrival of Sean Monahan, Sven Baertschi, and Johnny Gaudreau. Sven is in the NHL to stay, barring a major setback, and Gaudreau still has some college to finish up. But what happens with Monahan?
As excited as Flames fans and writers alike tend to be about the 6th overall pick, rushing him in so quickly is probably not the best idea. Lambert addressed this in his last 5 Things:
“Moreover, the cautionary tale of what Sam Gagner is going to get this summer should be a pretty good reason to dissuade the Flames from bringing an 18-year-old into the fold at this level. Gagner is going to get paid. And as Neil Greenberg points out, unless you think you’re going to get an above-average performance from a kid at that age, you’d do well to keep him in junior from a future financial standpoint. Monahan seems rather an unlikely candidate to be above-average in the NHL next season.”
If Monahan starts in the NHL this year, it’s a year too soon. Calgary won’t be good enough for it to matter, and it’ll waste a year of having him on a very reasonable contract. It’ll basically be the same issue we’re going to see Edmonton have in the next few years where all their stars start earning big cash at the same time and they have to trade away one of them for pennies on the dollar to remain under the cap.
I’m excited as the next guy for the young skilled players, but I don’t want it to be at the cost of future salary problems.
Corban Knight makes a lot more sense as a fill in player, but unlike Monahan, it’s harder to argue giving him top minutes over Stajan. Knight projects decently enough, but he’s almost certainly not skilled enough to do anything with top line minutes. Again, Stajan is left as the top line center by process of elimination.
4. It’d Be Damn Amusing
Matty Franchise, as I’ve outlined, is basically the best offensive center on the Flames, barring poor contract management. This is hilarious, given his recent pro-rated point totals of 33, 23, and 43. He’s been outright buried by coaches and vilified by fans writers. Stajan is basically the epitome and the greatest legacy of the Sutter era. I can’t help but think I’d giggle every time I see Stajan on the ice with Baertschi, Cammalleri and/or Glencross.
5. It’s Also Very Practical
More ice time with better linemates makes for a better value for Stajan in a theoretical trade. Stajan’s contract expires this year, so why not pump his perceived value and then flip him at the deadline? Moreover, GMs are notoriously short-sighted, so it’s unlikely any GM would be concerned about his rougher seasons in recent history if he’s on pace for 50 or more points in 2013-14.
I’m not going to argue Stajan will lead Calgary to the promised land of playoffs and beer fountains. I’m not going to argue he’s a long term solution- but he’s the best solution for the immediate future, and that’s not a terrible thing.