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

    This is a hot debate. A lot of hard line posts have equal ‘trashes’ and ‘props’. Personally, I’m going to trust that Burkie will do what he did last time — ship Stajan out as soon as possible. Hopefully he will make another multi-player package and fleece someone else out of a franchise player.

    Find a way to get B. Schenn or Courturier out of Philly. Maybe there’s still a chance to get O’Reilly out of Col in Feb.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • stumblintrucker

    What quality free agent centers in their right mind are we going to sign in the off season? In order to do so we would have to grossly overpay. Nobody in the peak (or past) in their career wants to join a bottom 5 team to be a mentor.

    I think keeping Stajan allows us to continue to let Monahan and Colborne/Knight/Arnold grow without being thrown to the wolves. If you can sign him to a short term 2yr/$2.5 per why not. He might actually then become a resource for getting the asset we need in a trade while being a quality dressing room guy.

  • 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

    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.

  • 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.

  • Byron Bader

    I’d keep Stajan around for 2-3 more years, at no more than $2.25 – $2.5. We are going to be dreadful at least until 2014-15, might as well have a serviceable guy to show the young guys the ropes. Pass the reigns over to Monahan et al. as they become more comfortable in a year or two.

  • 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.

  • everton fc

    I don’t mind Backlund, but also don’t see him as more than 3rd line centre. There are plenty of these in the league, and probably coming up through our farm system down the road. If he has potential, others may have the same. It’s not like we’re moving an elite player if we move him.

    Burke likes grit. That’s a fact. Doesn’t bode well for Backlund. And maybe not so well for Baertschi, as well. I like them both, but that’s how I see it.

    I’d personally rather have Stajan as my 3rd line centre during a rebuild than Backlund. And if you play your assets right, not to mention free agency… We have a lot of cap room. Enough for a legitimate 1st line centre. And perhaps a linemate, or legitimate 1-4 d-man. Monahan stay as your #2. Stajan as #3. But I think Colborne gets a look at #3, so Stajan may be gone, as well. But I’d rather have Stajan, than Colborne, during a rebuild. I do see the arguments for Backlund over Stajan, but Backlund has yet to prove himself consistently. And if this organization is not the right “fit” for his skill set, best both parties part ways sooner, than later.

    A good 4th line would have Bouma on LW, Colborne at centre, and maybe someone like Ferland on the right side. Or Street, if Ferland proves to be a 3rd line option, which he may very well pan out to be. Street is a player I’d like to see get minutes on a 4th line. A 4th line of Bouma/Colborne/Street – pretty good line, even on a competitive team.

    If you look at asset management and cap room, the Flames could easily parlay both into a competitive team far faster than your average, so-called “rebuild”. And that’s probably how Burke sees it. Why wait 3 years, when you may be set up to be competitive next year? Again, with all this cap space, why not think this way?

      • everton fc

        If we took a could of young free agent forwards, and a few d-men with the cap room we have, blended these in with the likes of Brodie, Monahan, Wideman, Giordano, and so on, you think that would get us 8th? I don’t follow. A high-end 1st line centre, and/or forward, would take this team to a different level. Add a few seasoned d-men while the young defenders get seasoned…

        When you have cap room and use available assets wisely… A smart management group could get us closer to the Cup sooner than later, and quite wisely, if the right decisions are made.

        I personally don’t think guys like Colborne get you there. And guys like Galiardi are 4th line guys on my team. If you had guys like Bouma, Galiardi… Those types of guys as 4th liners… Those are as good as any 4th liners on most teams.

        This team has a 1st line that’s a 3rds line at best with most clubs. Even Stempniak’s a 3rd liner on a Cup contender. Perhaps even Hudler. I get this. But with cap room… And assets (moving guys like Cammy, for example, for assets)… You get closer to the Cup…

        There are no guarantees on rebuilds, as we see in Edmonton, somewhat in Florida… Other teams. And I’m not convinced the trio of Feaster/Weisbrod/Burke is a Cup winning trifecta. And I’d personally like to give Troy G. a run as head coach, over Hartley. Perhaps you’d see more out of Backlund and Baertschi. Perhaps…

        But that’s me. We all have our opinions.

        • everton fc

          I understand your argument, I just think you’re looking at it from a perfect scenario point of view.

          Like, if Calgary had been able to sign Parise and Suter, for example. But who is out there that wants to come here and is at that level?

          Sure, if we sign a 1st line superstar and #1 D and all our kids become stars in the next 3 years it could work, but it just doesn’t seem realistic to me. Not every kid will make it, superstars have to be avaialable, kids eventually have to be re-signed, we need far btter goaltending, etc.

          Calgary is a bottom 5 team right now, so making the playoffs would be another level, but blowing our cap room on established stars just puts Iginla and Jbo back on the team.

          IMO, that cap room should be used to save teams from poor contracts at the price of having to give up a quality pick or prospect.

          • piscera.infada

            Exactly, that’s basically what Florida did a few years ago.

            Not to mention, who are these elite centres? Thornton? Statsny?? Legwand??? There aren’t any. Thornton will be signed by San Jose, no doubt.

            There aren’t many defencemen either. It’s pretty much Phaneuf, and if that happens, I’m out.

            The only wingers that would fit in to this team (aren’t over 29) aren’t elite, but could generate some interest, albeit enough to make coming to the Flames a head-scratcher – Callahan (who will be resigned), Moulson. Of course, you could always go after John Scott for your first line left-wing (harr, harr).

          • piscera.infada

            I agree with Piscera. I don’t think the crop of free agents coming open this year is that great. With the Connor McDavid draft coming along after that, I would have to think long and hard about signing a high end RFA.

          • Parallex

            Interesting that you mention Florida since that’s basically what we’re going to have to do…

            2014-2015 Present Cap Spending is $35,645,417.00 per capgeek. If we presume that that the ceiling will be in the vicinity of $70,000,000.00 (with the stadium series, inflation, and new TV deal I thik that’s quite realistic if not a pessimistic projection). Do the math and the team is a significant $ figure below the floor.

          • piscera.infada

            I’m not arguing that we’ll likely have to sign players to make the floor. The original comment was about finding “elite” players through free agency, allowing us to compete as early as next season – which I don’t see.

            That said, I’m sure you could come up with a few ways of eating into the cap – such as signing a veteran to a low-term, higher-dollar contract for simply being a “good soldier”, if you deem him to be a good player to have around the young kids (ie: Stemps).

            I’m not saying don’t go out and sign anyone, because that’s a little bit ridiculous in today’s NHL. But don’t sign players as a “quick-fix”, finish close to a playoff spot, and trade Monahan for Jokinen.


            Would it surprise you to learn that Backlund hasn’t been tilting the ice that much more than Stajan? Especially given the fact that Stajan’s offensive zone starts are the lowest on the team (yes, lower than Backlund). Again, not a silver bullet. I just think that other then age, and almost-debunked potential, there isn’t that much difference.

          • everton fc

            I should have added finding elite players, as well, through trades, to relieve cap space. And I wouldn’t call signing these types of players “quick fixes”. I’m not a fan of the quick fix. But the wrong management group, with the wrong scouts, can make for a horrific rebuild. See Edmonton. Others.

            My thought is that we may not have found the best kids. Until Baertschi shows more, he’s still an project. And we’ve all read about Backlund.

            I’m also not convinced you want a guy like Hartley on a rebuild. “Just me”.

          • Parallex

            If that part of the CBA hasn’t changed then Yes, along with a fine… there are other potential sactions as well but those are at Bettman’s descretion and you’ll make yourself unpopular amoungst other teams since they’ll be forced to make up the difference in escrow.

          • supra steve

            I say there’s absolutely ZERO chance that the Flames (or any other club) will fail to reach the floor next year. If you NEED to spend money, professional sports is an excellent business to be in.

  • RedMan

    if anyone here has studied rebuilds ( i.e. edm.) I have a question for you…

    at what point, in the height of sucking, do i start to confidently claim we are already better then everyone else cause we are gonna win in the future even if losing now??? I wanna get this right…

  • 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,

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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…

  • Byron Bader

    Although this team is in a re-build, they still need veteran leadership to mentor the new kids. Throwing a bunch of rookies to the lions every night is going to destroy confidence in some of them. This team needs the Gio’s and Stajan’s to teach the kids the proper attitude and work ethic.

  • Matty Franchise Jr

    Maybe keeping Matty Franchise isn’t taking a spot away from a young guy. Maybe it’s sheltering a young guy from a starting role on a weak team.

    Maybe the Flames should try to sign Matty to a reasonable, short term deal and then trade him in the offseason. If a deal can’t be reached by the deadline, trade him then.

  • 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).

  • Arik

    WRT Backlund being moved to 4th line if he slumps offensively a bit you must remember he played 1st line minutes ( 19 min per game and nearly 2 min per game PP) over the first 10 games of the season and produced 2 G and 2 A during that time. This isn’t first line production. Stajan came back and took that role.

    Stajan isn’t a first line center either. That is our real problem. No first line center.

    When Backlund got dropped he wasn’t going to play Monahan minutes nor should he.

    He was in competition with Colborne. When either slumped DEFENSIVELY on the 3rd line they were bumped to the 4th. I don’t believe offensive production had anything to do with it. (Neither were rewarded for a good offensive game while on the 4th line).

    Over the last 1/3 of the season (7games) Backlund’s Offensive/Defensive Faceoffs have been 17/20 while Colbornes have been 23/24. Not much difference. Backlund has more ice time than Colborne (86-80 minutes)and more PK time (12-2) but less PP time (2-12). Their even strength minutes are Backlund 73, Colborne 74. They are in a dog fight for Minutes.

    What is concerning about Backlund is that if you were to extrapolate his scoring over the past 4 years (include this years as well) his average production for playing 73 games per year is 10 Goals and 15 Assists with this years extrapolated total being 7 goals and 17 assists despite playing tons the first half of this season. Those production numbers aren’t improving and aren’t good enough moving forward as a second line Center unless his Defensive work is the best in the league. It isn’t.

    Colborne hasn’t played enough to warrant such a comparison. Maybe he will blossom or maybe he wont. Time will tell.

  • 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.

  • 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.