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.

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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.

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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. “

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

  • MonsterPod

    The turds on the Canucks blog are discussing how great it would be to add Stajan to their team right now……draft picks back only I hope, none of those lazy douche bags please!

    It’s not really trolling; after all it is my second favorite team; any team that the Canucks are playing that is….


  • redricardo

    The debate about the Flames center ice position is rather simple; at this point in time we have the most depth we have had in a generation, that’s the positive. The negative is that with one exception they are all currently number 3/4 centers. Monahan will be a number 2 with the possibility of being a number 1.

    Stajan is a marginal number 2 and both Backs and Colborne are 3/4s although for a short period a couple of games could give a team some higher minutes but not over the long haul.

    On the farm(those with NHL games in) you have Street who is a number 4 and Byron an emergency call up for a short period. Then you have three centers with no NHL experience but some potential. Jorris started well but seems to have fallen off lately and it will likely be a couple of years in the minors for him. Granlund started slowly but is playing much better lately, he may have the skill set to be a 2 but his size may limit that. Then there is Knight who has had a strong start to his first pro season, what is his ceiling? I suspect a number 3 much like Backs and Colborne. Backs, Colborne and Knight are all about the same age. One is a proven NHL #3 center, one has a handful of NHL games and is a number 3/4 and the third one has no NHL games.

    Outside the system the top prospect is Arnold and while his college numbers look good one must ask are they inflated by paying with Johny G.

    Based upon who we have the best way to go is to roll 4 lines and hope for the best. The other option is to target and find a true NHL # 1 or 2 who is @27 years old and fits Hartley’s game plan.

  • MonsterPod

    I heard on TSN that Carolina made an offer for Backs, I wonder what they offered. Also they want a puck moving D. I wonder if Billings would be someone they might be interested in.

  • MonsterPod

    Just heard on TSN that Carolina made an offer for Backs, I wonder what it was. I also heard they want a puck moving D, I wonder if Billings is a possibility.

    WW sorry that I missed your favorite Rhino,

  • Burnward

    To my eyes,

    Stajan has been a better, more consistent player than Mickis all year.

    Colborne has shown more offensive flash and willingness to battle than Mickis.

    Monahan is already better than Mickis.

    I think Backlund’s hockey IQ is through the roof, but he hasn’t found his offensive game as a pro yet and who knows if he ever will.

    His competition to keep his place here is Stajan and Colborne…and so far (again, to me) Mickis is losing that battle.

    Move him or keep him, he’s not going to be a difference maker this season either way.

    • redricardo

      Just to play devil’s advocate…

      Colborne has shown more offensive flash? This is why they both have 7 points in 22 games?

      Who says that as a player with an admitted “through the roof” hockey IQ, he needs to find his offensive game? Every player needs to be an all-star scorer? This team is so packed with above average players that we don’t have room for a 24 year old centre making only 1.5 million who is currently sporting the 5th best relCorsi rate among forwards on this team?

      Somone who can play the other teams best players and generally keep the puck in their end has no place on your Calgary Flames?

      • Burnward

        Again, to my eyes.

        I have been a Backlund supporter for years dude, but he’s been way too invisible for stretches for me this year.

        He has to take it…and so far he hasn’t exactly done that.

        I’m not a stats-head though, but to me his QualHeart isn’t quite where it needs to be.

  • John Jay Bowman

    Play Backlund with offensive players and he will produce. A couple shifts with Hudler and Cammalleri in Colorado and he got results. A shift with Blair Jones and Bouma and they scored last game against Florida. A healthy scratch in favor of Jackman and McGrattan on the same line, and then throwing him in there when they never did anything. This is an indictment of the coaches Calgary has had, not the player.

  • loudogYYC

    matty franchise has always been a replacement level or slightly better centre, have said it all along having watched numerous tarrana games, however brett did screw him over. as for mickis, if ya can move the kid do it, he might benefit from a move. if he doesnt move the kid is finished in 3 years, some benefit from a move and backs is one. look at steen for example, once the virus has set in the only remedy is a move.

  • Kevin R

    Cammi is as good as traded, I would imagine so is Stemps. At that point put Mickis on the wing & see if he can find his offensive game. Would rather see that than get a lousy mid pick for him.

  • loudogYYC

    This all seems pretty clear to me. Stajan came here as a 24/25 year old and Brent Sutter deployed him as a grinder and never game him a fair shake. The new coach has more time for him and look what’s he’s done with it! He’s very useful now and he’ll get us as much as a 2nd round pick at the deadline.

    Backlund is in the same boat as Stajan was back then, and there’s no guarantees this coach will be here at this time next year. Patience is the name of the game here, Backlund will be fine.

    • Baceda

      I agree with the first paragraph, but remember that up until recently Stajan was pretty much impossible to trade (ie. nobody wanted him). Backlund, while being deployed now the same way Stajan was a few years ago, is currently very tradeable and apparently generating much interest. Hence, he may soon be gone. Unfortunately.

  • redricardo

    Stajan and Jay-Bo regressed in their play and production in Calgary. Brent Sutter doesn’t always know how to get the most out of his player or let them use their strengths to the best of their abilities.

  • RedMan

    OK here it is…

    everyone who feels that Backlund would fit fine and score points given the minutes and linemates… give this post props…

    everyone who feels coach is right and fourth line it is… trash this post…

    I personally feel Backlund is right guy in the wrong place like Stajan was with Sutter and given decent linemates would make an excellent defensive forward that puts up 40-50 pts

  • everton fc

    I like Matt Stajan but from a management there is no point to sign him at any price including the league minimum. If a trade can be made great but otherwise it’s best just to let him walk.

    Staj cannot help Calgary win, tilt the ice wrong, make players better around him, or is there any likelihood he could provide an upside surprise.

    This stands in contrast to Backlund, he can help Calgary win as he can tilt the ice the right way, he still has upside potential at his age, and he is signed a good value contract and will remain a rfa at the end of his contract.

    When you compare Backlund (drafted as 24th overall pick) to his draft class, he certainly has not been a bust. Only Eller (13th pick), Shattenkirk (14th pick), Pacioretty (22nd pick) and Perron (26th pick) have been better picks but no by a country mile.

    There were plenty of busts ahead of Backlund, including Hickey (4th), Hamill (8th), Ellerby (10th), Plante (15th), Gillies (16th), MacMillan (19th) and Esposito (20th), Nash (21st) and White (25th). Otherwise, the only real steals were Subban (43rd) and Simmonds (61st) but there always a couple second rounders who turn into gems. But then again you must recall that Darryl Sutter was someone who didn’t value 2nd round picks at all.

    So my point is Backlund has not turn out to be a bad pick given the draft class. That draft class has only produced 3 bondafide superstars, Kane (1st), Couture (9th) and Subban.

    Backlund is at least still a tradable asset. Look at the Oil, they drafted Gagner (5th), Plante (15th), Nash (21st). They also draft a goalie, Gistedt, at the 36th pick. This draft has turned into a disaster for the Oilers as Gagner has shown to be a second line centre for a about 1/3rd of his career and most times a 3rd line centre.

    • piscera.infada

      I also wouldn’t be so quick to call Hickey a “bust”. The kid wasn’t really given much of a chance in LA due to two debilitating injuries (an Ankle that required surgery, and then a Shoulder that required surgery). After that, he was deemed expendable on a pretty good blueline. He has found his way after becoming an Islander, he’s still only 24 (25 in three months), and played his first NHL game in January of 2013. Then again, I played with the guy so I’m a little biased – I hope it works out for him.

  • mk

    Matt Stajan to Vancouver would be hilarious – their fans would go ape. It wouldn’t be an awful plan for them (increase center depth w/Stajan at 3C) but riots would happen.

    Try Backlund at D and see what happens. He wouldn’t be worse than O’Brien or Butler.