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.”

  • 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

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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…

  • 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.

  • 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….


  • 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.

  • 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.

      • 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.

      • 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.

  • 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.

    • 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.

    • 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.

    • 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.

  • RedMan

    Next year at least one of our 4 Centers SHOULD be gone. You cant move forward without bringing younger players up to compete (and yes I recognize we already have 3 young centers).

    Both Stajan and Backlund APPEAR to have plateaued ( I do think Backlund still has some growing to do but don’t think he will progress beyond a third line center). Monahan hasn’t and the jury is still out on Colborne. (that is why I would keep Colborne over Backlund).

    If Stajan goes and you decide your other centers aren’t ready for 1st line duty next year you MUST make darn sure you pick up a UFA Center for a couple of years. Over pay if you have to as you don’t want your young players to be overmatched. I don’t mind trading Stajan and we could get an up grade through a UFA.

    If Backlund goes and the return, as many have suggested is small, then you should, if necessary, be able to pick up a similar player for peanuts as well. I don’t mind trading Backlund either.

    If you think you have one NHL ready Center on the Farm and you are prepared to dip into the UFA market and over pay if required for a couple of years (no more than two) then I have no problem trading Backlund AND Stajan.

    At the end of the season rate your centers still on the team then move to fill holes with UFAs or trades. We should have ample cap space next year to over pay if required and players like Backlund can be picked up relatively cheaply.

    The glaring need for the Flames right now is lack of size. In the West only Edmonton has smaller forwards. Our forward median weight HAS to increase by about 7 lbs to be able to compete, particularly in the playoffs which WILL happen one day. The Flames forward median weight is presently is about 198 lbs with the contenders for the most part weighing in at over 204.

    Size isn’t everything but without it you are pooched. Having said that IF we receive players for either Backlund or Stajan I would prefer a couple of wingers, younger and bigger, with the potential to play hockey as well. (Not a McDermid although he may turn out to be useful).

  • beloch

    “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.”

    Well, he did call himself a whipping boy in an interview once.

    Stajan has been given just 39.0% offensive zone starts this season and has faced the toughest QoC of any center on the team by a substantial margin. He’s the Flames #1 shut-down center by a large margin over Backlund (who is also given tough minutes compared to Colborne or Monahan). So how’s Stajan doing with these minutes? Bad, but not horrible corsi, and moderate point production. Stajan is an okay second line forward, the same as he’s always been. He’s never going to be the #1 shutdown man for a competitive team, but he sure looks great with the Flames right now!

    Backlund, on the other hand, hasn’t been great this season either. He’s been given slightly easier deployment with far worse line-mates, and his performance is similar. Really similar. I’m starting to think Backlund is Stajan 2.0. If you swapped these two players’ roles it might not actually make much difference. Whether you consider that a compliment or an insult to Backlund or Stajan, one thing is clear, if you have two carbon copies of the same player and you’re in a rebuild, you trade the older one.