If we took a poll of Flames fans a couple of years ago asking whether or not they’d want to keep Matt Stajan on the team beyond the season, nevermind the life of his current contract, the response likely would have been a resounding no. Perhaps not completely unanimous, but certainly overwhelmingly in favour of ditching him in any fashion possible — be it through trade, waivers, assignment to the minors or just wishing for something bad to happen to him.
But five seasons into his stint in Calgary, the 29-year-old centre might be the most popular pending UFA in town. You won’t find a more low-key guy on or off the ice than Stajan, so it’s no wonder the ride on his road to redemption was slow, methodical, and something only whispered about in NHL rinks rather than blazed across newspaper headlines.
Crushed under the thumb of the Sutter regime
In any blockbuster trade there is a centerpiece. When then-Flames GM Darryl Sutter sent Dion Phaneuf to the Toronto Maple Leafs in January 2010, not a single marquee player came to Calgary in return. Stajan, Niklas Hagman, Ian White and Jamal Mayers were the return. With 55 points in 76 games the previous year, and 41 in his first 55 with the Leafs that season, Stajan looked like a promising young player finding his groove in the NHL. Sutter made him the primary piece of the trade on the Flames side with a long-term deal that would pay Stajan $14 million over the next four seasons.
In hindsight, that might have been the worst possible scenario for Stajan.
Nothing short of that 50-point plateau would satisfy the masses, and while Stajan produced 16 points in 27 games the rest of the way, things almost inexplicably soured the next season. Head coach Brent Sutter’s doghouse was an uncomfortable place to sleep, and Stajan was stuck there often. After averaging more than 19 minutes a game with the Flames following the trade, he was given just 14 per contest in 2010-11, and less than a minute on both special teams units.
After spending the first five seasons of his NHL career on the first and second lines, making plays on the powerplay, and skating beside the likes of Phil Kessel and Alexei Ponikarovsky, Stajan found himself centering the fourth line for Sutter, beside guys like Tim Jackman and Tom Kostopoulos.
“I was used in a lesser role with Brent. My mindset was to be the best fourth-line centre I could be for our team during that stretch,” Stajan says now, realizing that his image was tarnished and there was little hope of producing points at any regular pace with the role he was given.
“From the outside, people just look at production and don’t realize the opportunity given. We control what we do out there. That’s all you can do. Your hockey career, every season, and even game to game, it’s a rollercoaster.”
Stajan was given no real explanation for the change in role, but he never griped publicly, never turned down an interview on the topic, never stopped trying to improve his situation. But it wasn’t easy.
“Definitely, it’s hard on you,” he says with a reflective laugh. “There’s down time. You try to leave it all at the rink but we are human beings. We go home, we have families. My wife, I’m sure had some nights where she was pretty annoyed with me because I probably took it out on her. “
Into the unknown — a new era begins
With both Sutters gone, another potential lockout on the horizon and a focus on youth just around the corner for the Flames, Stajan wasn’t sure what to expect following the worst two seasons of his career.
When teams were offered two compliance buyouts before the start of the new season a year ago, Stajan wasn’t sure what his future held.
A buyout was a possibility, although Stajan was hopeful a more promising finish to the previous season under Brent might help his case to stick around under Bob Hartley. He did have a stretch of 14 games through February and March that year that saw him post seven goals and 11 points.
“I didn’t know if a buyout was coming,” Stajan said. “At the end of the season, Brent’s last year, we had a ton of injuries. I started to get more of an opportunity to play. I finished the season — I thought — really well.
“Going into a lockout, you just never know what’s going to happen, what direction the team wants to go. I’m thankful that the new coach that came in, nothing did happen and I was given an opportunity to get back to playing a role I’ve played previously and I’ve been successful at.”
Coming in as the new head coach prior to the lockout-shortened season, Hartley had heard all about Stajan’s difficult years. He told every player they’d get a fresh start and a chance to prove to him what they could do and what kind of role they would ultimately play for him.
“I was pretty happy to hear those words,” says Stajan. “A fresh start is what you need after going through a stretch that wasn’t exactly great for myself.”
Hartley was just as happy to realize what he really had in Stajan — a positive role model for the young kids they wanted to give more responsibility to, and a player who could still produce offensively.
“I don’t think he was in very good books before. It just shows that sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t work. There’s no magic formulas for this,” Hartley says, offering communication as the key to their relationship.
“The player is unbelievably committed to team success. He’s a great leader. The good part is that the person is even better than the player. I rarely see a quality human being like Stajan. He cares about everyone. He’s very unselfish. He’s a pro.
“I came in, I had great talks with him. He just took off. He did it. I’m very impressed and I like him a lot.“
Is redemption the end of the road in Calgary?
With 23 points through 43 games last year — a pace that would put him at nearly 44 points over 82 games — Stajan showed Hartley he deserved a bigger role. He’s averaging over 19 minutes this season and is back on the 50-point pace that was expected of him when he came to the Flames.
But his contract expires at the end of this season, and he’s unsure of what that means for his future in Calgary — a place he now considers home, where he and his wife Katie have a house, where their family will grow by one in five or six months when they have their first child.
It’s a city in which he overcame his biggest career obstacle by giving a consistent effort and staying as positive as possible. And given the state of the Calgary Flames, this is a team that may need that type of guy to stick around and share his experience with the young players during the rebuild.
“Through that whole situation I feel like I grew as a player and as a person,” Stajan says. “Now, looking at the whole picture, you see teammates and other guys in the league and friends that are going through the same thing, day in and day out, whether it’s in our profession or in their own lives. Having gone through that, you just kind of be that friend and be that person who tells them, ‘Hey, it’s going to get better.’
“It’s never as bad as it seems and it’s never as good. It’s on you to make sure that mentally you kind of keep yourself in the moment and try to get better. Sometimes it takes longer than you think.”