A Case for Matt Stajan as the Number One Center



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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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  • SmellOfVictory

    One of the saddest articles I have ever read. He’s absolutely right and I hope we keep Monahan down for one more year. And who knows, Stajan scores a couple goals and maybe we get a fourth rounder for him at the deadline

  • SmellOfVictory

    Good arguments, and I agree overall. Does Backlund really qualify as a low event player, though? He’s not at the top of the league in that sense, but he tends to create a decent number of shots for, in addition to his shot against suppression abilities.

    Either way, the mere fact that Backlund is the only proven heavy lifter that the Flames have at C pretty much settles the argument between him and Stajan as to who should get the tougher minutes. And I do like the idea of Stajan getting “scoring line” starts in order to bolster his trade value. I do ask that Hartley please give Backlund some god damned PP time, however. Seriously.

    • beloch

      Dutter is a great coach, but a lousy GM.

      Hindsight is 20/20. If Craig Button had remained Flames GM in 2004, who knows what that team could have accomplished. We all know what happened when Dutter was the GM.

      With coaches, you can always say it’s next year country. With GMs, it’s next decade country.

      Here’s to incremental, creeping success…

  • supra steve

    One thing I’m just not understanding is why the Oil will “have to trade away one of them for pennies on the dollar to remain under the cap.”. I agree that they will likely have to move Nail (and possibly more) at some point, but why the thought that they will not get value for young skilled player(s)? If moving one of these players nets a #2 or 3 D-man and a high end prospect and possibly a pick, is that not decent value? Perhaps they get more or less, but why the assumption that they will get hosed?

    BOS did OK moving Seguin.

  • DoubleDIon

    I don’t really see Stajan as any better than Backlund offensively. At this stage they are comparable players IMO and I’d give Backlund the top spot based on upside. So I disagree, but not vehemently. I’d like to see Backlund between Glencross and Stempniak getting the most minutes. That line could compete against top lines defensively and still give you solid 2nd line scoring. The rest of our lines are probably going to be well below water.

    If you wanted to put Stajan between Cammaleri and Hudler to form a soft competition offensive line I’d have no issue with it. Personally, I’d like to see Cammaleri on a bus to give Bartschi those top 6 minutes, but that might not happen.

  • the forgotten man

    Amazing how one Blog Title can succinctly summarize 24+ years of mismanagement/futility…a team of Monkeys at Typewriters could not have screwed up this bad.

  • RKD

    You make a lot of valid points for Stajan being the #1 center. He’s lost some of his offensive ability to me but he has done well in a lot of other areas which help the team. Again I think like Jokinen and Jay-Bo, he’s getting the reputation of not living up to his contract. I think it’s too early for Monahan to slot in a #1 center. I think Corban Knight should hit the roster. I also wouldn’t have a problem with Backlund as the #1 center, the Flames know what they have in Stajan. However, do they really know how Backlund would fair with top 3 minutes for hopefully a full 82 games. Stajan and Backs as 1-2 and then Corban Knight as the third line center would work. The top line with Iggy and Tangs got eaten alive last season, what happened? Hartley put Backs with them, and the damage started to go down.

  • Ed_Ward42

    I think point 3 and 5 point at something critical that should shape the way the roster is utilized going forward. The Flames distribution of minutes should reflect the twin goals of increasing the value of everyone that doesn’t fit in the long term plans of the team while simultaneously keeping the value of the young guys low.

    This is not to say that the development of the young guys should be sacrificed in order to save money, but that benefits of giving a guy like Stajan more PP minutes far outweigh the costs to “development” of giving those same minutes to Monahan.

    Ill illustrate this with an example. Lets say there are hypothetically 8 PP minutes a game for LWs to be divided between Sven and Hudler. And let’s say that playing 6 pp minutes instead of 4 will lead to 5 extra goals over the course of the season. Clearly, the optimal strategy for the Flames would be to give 6 Pp minutes a game to Hudler and 2 to Sven. Hudler can raise his trade value, Svens RFA price will be reduced, and the losing those extra 2 minutes in PP will have a negligible effect on Svens “development.” I remain unconvinced that scoring 20 goals instead of 15 really would any long term effect on Sven. Willing to be proven wrong tho.

    The big takeaway is not that Sven shouldn’t play on the PP but that with a little strategic thinking the Flames can raise the value of the assets they want to move and keep their own RFAs prices down, with little to no effect on the long term development of their prospects.

    Seems like a no brainer. Which probably means it won’t happen.

  • Michael

    Stajan as our number one center, Stempniak as our #1 right winger, and a soon to be traded Cammy as our top LW. The other teams in our division must be quivering with fear.
    Now we just have to work out who will replace Iggys 2012/13 0.7 points a game, and Tanquays 0.81 points a game. Jones add some other things to the mix, but this team is going to have trouble scoring period. The d corp ie weaker with the loss of JBO, we have unknown goal tending, we might well be in a rush to the bottom for both goals for and against.
    This rebuilding is going to be tough for the next year or so…

  • ChinookArchYYC

    Full Marks Arik.

    Stajan may not win a popularity contest in Calgary, but in my view was victimized my B. Sutter’s coaching style and utilization. He was never as bad as he seemed when Brent was the coach, and it was clear his confidence was non-existent. I believe the 2012-13 Stajan was the real Matt Stajan, and we can expect more of the same this year. In short. you’re right he’s the best center we’ve got, and the best option for the #1 line.

  • ChinookArchYYC

    I think its good to point out what I call the “Kadri Method.” I have advocated for stajan to be 1st line this year because, as Arik mentions, he is the most longterm proven NHLer of the group. If he is able to eat up mins against other top qualcomp, that enables backlund (or if Monahan is unfortunately kept up) to develop vs 2nd teir qualcomp. Carlyle refused to put Kadri on top line when he was thriving last year and fans were gettin chapped, I think it was genius to allow him to continue thriving in top 6mins against the right level of competition to pump his tires enough. This could be enable a top line of Camy Stajan Glencross to soak up the mins vs opposing top guys and allow sven backlund and player X (probably hudler) to have serious development and possibly production as a solid 2nd line, not only in off zone but also in playing D against guys like booth kessler higgins or selanne koivu cogliano, instead of getting pumped and discouraged in both ends by sedins or getzlaf/perry lines.

    Regardless, lots of possible arguments for this post I agree on.

  • febreze

    I think Backs is more ‘low luck’ than ‘low event’. This could change if he had people around who could show him how to finish. In that case, never mind, he’s ‘low event’ but glad he’s flying the Flaming C nontheless.

    • febreze

      generally that phrase takes into account a player’s defensive performance as well – backlund’s shot suppression abilities make him low event, not so much his lack of luck.

  • beloch

    Two things:

    1. Last season, Stajan went from self-proclaimed whipping boy and future compliance buy-out to a first-line NHL’er, albeit a tremendously mediocre one. A player on an upwards arc sells better than one struggling with too much responsibility, as Stajan likely will if he’s counted on to actually produce points.

    2. His contract is up at the end of this season. I don’t see him resigning with Calgary, so it’s trade him or lose him!

    Verdict: Sell NOW. The return will likely not get any higher and the risk of losing his value is high if kept. Let Backlund try to discover his scoring touch. Heck, give Blair Jones some top 3 minutes and watch the lottery picks zoom closer!

  • beloch

    1. lol you listed Max Reinhart twice. But yeah.

    2. poor Mickis… But yeah.

    3. Yeah.

    4. Heh. Yeah.

    5. Indeed.

    So basically… yeah.

    I really don’t want Monahan to play in the NHL next year. Largely because I want him to play in the WJC, and I’m not entirely certain the Flames would let him go back.

    I mean, if he’s a legit top 6 guy or something, sure, but really. What could it hurt?