Matt Stajan’s Long Road to Redemption


Backstrom and Stajan Face Off
– pic via clyde


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.”

  • Lordmork

    For most of this year, I couldn’t help but think that we ought to trade Stajan. Why would he want to stick with the team, after all? And he’s taking up a space I’d rather give to Knight or something. But the point about him making this home is a worthwhile one, so I guess he might be willing to re-sign here. And he does seem to have developed into a leadership role.

    Stajan isn’t a first-line centre. But he has been playing those minutes. Without him, (and especially if Backlund is traded) who plays that time? I don’t think there’s anyone else in the org who can take those minutes without it being detrimental to their development. I wouldn’t put Monahan or Colborne or any of our other prospects there right now. And as much as I’d like to see Backlund getting more time, I’m nervous about fielding a team where a 25-year old Backlund is our oldest, most experienced centre.

    I never thought I’d say this, but I’d re-sign Stajan for 2 years, and then re-evaluate. Coincidentally, that’s about when I’d hope this team would start being competitive again, especially if we’re awful for the McDavid sweepstakes next year. I don’t think he deserves a raise unless we’re desperate to hit the cap floor, though.

  • RedMan

    It doesn’t matter whether we fans like Stajan or not, Hartley likes him and thinks he is a no 1 center. Of course, he’s a good puck possession player whereas i think Backlund sometimes is at a lost on what to do with the puck. I think Backlund given his size, talent should be able to get 50 points each season but he doesn’t seem to be able to produce in the offensive zone consistently. Thus its in all probability goodbye to Backlund. I think he is a good player but he can’t do anything on the McGrattan line.

  • RedMan

    I really have to check and make sure I am not halucinating – did I really read that the Heat are FIRST in the AHL right now?

    How is this possible, given the fact that just a couple short years ago, with Sutter’s drafting, we had the worst prospect pool in the NHL???
    How times have changed!

    • beloch

      Is there really a strong correlation between AHL success and NHL prospects? I’m not questioning you, I’m just asking….

      My gut tells me there is very very little correlation since the fortunes of an AHL team and NHL prospects unless a high calibre goalie is involved.

      The AHL is a team of 25 guys, maybe 2 or 3 who have a shot at the NHL and even less are high quality guys. So unless you have a superstar can a prospect really impact the team THAT much. And if he is a superstar at the AHL he’d probably be in the NHL.

      I see goalies being the 1 exception…

  • RedMan

    if we give him fifteen million, for fifteen years, and he surprises everyone (the way Kipper did) and retires in 3 or 4 years, hey, that wouldn’t hurt anyone. and of course, it WOULD be a complete surprise, just like Kipper.

  • People are suggesting we resign Stajan? This is even a debate?

    What benefit is to be gained from resigning him?
    All I see are negatives. 1. he takes up a roster spot from someone like a Granlund or an Arnold 2. He’s not a 50 point guy and he won’t be given he’s now on the other side of the hill and going downwards not upwards. 3. This is a rebuild 4. there are other better veterans who produce who can help the kids out.

    If the Flames resign Stajan I will send them anthrax in the mail i swear.

    What can Stajan do that Backlund cannot?
    The mere fact that management would even consider this makes me vibrate with anger.

      • crapshoot

        Using analogies on female genitalia to describe weakness is stupid and usually relied on by insecure “dudes” with a masculinity complex. I just wanted to share that I take offence by that behavior. Now you know.

        Mikael Backlund is a good hockey player who is in the same pickle that Stajan was in just a little while back. I sure do hope that he gets his shot at redemption, and I hope he gets it with the flames. He would be a great no 3 center on a good team in a few years.

        As for Stajan I could live with him being re-signed for the next season. Since the flames will likely be at the bottom of the west next year as well they might as well keep losing with veterans like Stajan who has went through adversity and prevailed. If Backlund can somehow do a similar journey as Stajan has done, he might just be a similar veteran prescence on a future team, with the difference being that the future team might actually be winning.

  • redhot1

    I made an account just to comment on this.
    Matt Stajan, out of the “big three” UFAs (Staj, Stemp,Cammy) is the one I think we should sign. If we trade him away, that means Monahan would be thrust into the No 1 centre role, which I think would be a big mistake (See RNH a couple hours up the highway). Let Monahan develop behind Stajan, at least until he overtakes him, which may be next season, or the season after that, whatever.
    We could sign him for a fair price, because it appears he likes Calgary and wants to stay here. I would sign him for 4 years at 4.5 per.

    • EugeneV

      This is a great website where you can freely express your opinion…so here is mine……your note presumes the team is stagnant and will not trade for/develop more centres with greater skill and potential.

      Also your contract length and numbers are critically incredibly SCARY! You are not in alignment with reality.

    • T&A4Flames

      You’re kidding me right? 4 @ 4.5 per????

      For 4 years we’ve been saying Stajan has not lived hp to his contract of 3.5 despite him being better the last 2 years. Now you want to give him $4.5???

      Ya, no!

      I would consider 3years @ 2.5 per but no more. I don’t mind Stajan, but he hasn’t earned that much term and certainly not that salary.

        • T&A4Flames

          That was my high end. Only based on the arguements that others have given. My own opinion is that we can get by without Matty Franchise. In short I’m on the keep Backlund and move Stajan train.

          Backs can handle tough minutes to allow easy time for the kids. We are deepest at C albeit with bottom 6 types and we still have vet wingers to bring them along.

    • 1. The price you suggest is insane.
      2. The length you suggest is insane.
      3. Backlund can step into any role they are currently playing Stajan in and he’s younger including taking heavier minutes in front of Monahan.

      I’m not saying trade him or keep him (I would listen to offers and decide from there) but I wouldn’t dream of keeping him on those terms. You would be better off losing him for nothing than doing that.

  • What this also illustrates is how much role, circumstance and coaching decisions impact a players results, his ability to contribute and, of course, the resultant perception of the player. If Brent Sutter sticks around, there’s a better than even chance Stajan is bought out or waiting to play out the string as a 4th liner.

    Elite players and lousy players will almost always naturally find their own level in the league. But the huge middle class in between is to some degree dependent on external forces to dictate their output.

    • SmellOfVictory

      The weird thing about Stajan is that he didn’t blow anyone away on the 4th line, even from a possession perspective. It’s like he got busted down, became sad, and didn’t try as hard.

  • Rockmorton65

    I say sign him 3 yrs/ 2.5-3 per. He’s been a good soldier for this team. He kept his career going through a nasty situation.

    Better yet, trade him for a 2nd or 3rd round pick @ the deadline, let him take his shot at a cup, then sign him in the off-season.

    • SmellOfVictory

      I can’t remember how legal this is, but I’d only really support that if the have an understanding that he would want to come back after the playoff run. Otherwise, extending him might be best.

      • Rockmorton65

        I seem to remember Tkachuck doing this a few years ago.

        The only way I’d want to see the Flames do this is if the other team was aware of his intentions. That’s why I said a 3rd. We get less, but stay respectful as an organization.

      • T&A4Flames

        If there is a quality return, the risk of him not returning isn’t a big deal, IMO. Stemper is the 1 of the pendinf fwd UFAs that I wohld consider resigning if a good deal can’t be found. We are weak on the right side through out the org so we could afford to sign him for a 3 or even 4 year deal. Bes been a great mentor; with Horak first and now Mony any Baert and he’s found a level of consistency in his game as a Flame.

  • FlamesRule

    Stajan is a keeper Jay. As the kids develop, he’ll slip down the depth chart to second then third line centre and give us his all in each situation. He’s got the attitude this team needs – sign him long term!