In the Flames’ wild and ridiculously unlikely 5-3 victory over the Dallas Stars, Matt Stajan played just 11:37. He was the third least-played forward, above only his linemates, the recently not-healthy-scratched Michael Ferland and Drew Shore.
In the Flames’ absolutely dominating 5-2 win over the Nashville Predators just the day before, Stajan played just 12:51; again, only above Ferland and Shore. That line did produce Ferland’s first NHL goal on an insane shift, though, on which Stajan was particularly noticeable.
That trio has looked pretty good together, actually. They aren’t playing much, but Stajan has found a nice little niche centring two rookies still adjusting to the NHL game. He’s a stabilizing veteran presence down the middle.
This season just probably hasn’t gone as he was anticipating it. This is the first year of Stajan’s four-year, $3.125 million annual average deal. You don’t re-sign with a team for that length of time and amount of money just to suddenly find yourself averaging 11:40, after all; his lowest ice time since being he was 22.
do u ever sometimes think the flames do not deserve matt stajan
— ari (@thirtyfourseven) March 31, 2015
I tweeted this (somewhat flippantly) following Stajan’s baller shift on Sean Monahan’s delay of game penalty against the Stars. You may recall the one: he cleared the puck, then raced in to behind the Dallas net to try to retrieve it and score or, at the very least, extend the kill. It was ridiculous, and in a game that’s going to be romanticized for the heart palpitations its third period caused, probably one of the best individual efforts.
Immediately following the work he put in to get Ferland his first NHL goal, too. Stajan is playing some very limited minutes, and he’s making the most of them.
A tumultuous time in Calgary
Stajan’s introduction out west was the result of evaluating him to be the worth of approximately one Dion Phaneuf. It could have gone better, because people were not nearly as angry at Phaneuf five years ago as they are today. He was also the result of desperate cries of “Jarome Iginla has no centre, please help him”. Stajan was to be that centre. He was, after all coming off of one 50 point campaign, and looked to be en route towards another.
He averaged 19:11 with the Flames immediately following the trade. Congrats, Matt: you’re a first line centre.
Then next season, in 2010-11, his first full year in Calgary: congrats Matt, you still get to play with Iggy sometimes but you’re gonna average 14:14 a game and get spread around a little, okay?
The next season: hey Matt how do you feel about being best friends with Tom Kostopoulos and Tim Jackman? Good right? Yes, good. Enjoy your 13 minutes.
Basically: as long as Darryl Sutter was around, Stajan got minutes. As long as Darryl was not around but his brother Brent was, Stajan did not get minutes.
Enter: Bob Hartley. Enter: minutes for Stajan. Enter: 17:10 in the lockout season, and then 18:22 in 2013-14. Congrats Matt, you’re back to first line centre status (until Mikael Backlund’s talent becomes evident, and then Kostopoulos and Jackman’s other former pivot gets the first line minutes, but hey, Stajan’s right behind him).
This season kind of totally flipped things for him, though. When once Stajan was getting some pretty good ice time and playing most often with Lee Stempniak, practically overnight he was punted to the bottom of the roster and hanging out with Brandon Bollig. He went from 20 minutes of ice time in April 2014 to eight six months later.
Instead of just Backlund above him, it was now him, Monahan, and Colborne. Now, Backlund had already proven himself worthy. With high hopes for Monahan and a great pre-season performance, it made sense for him to play in the top six. Colborne? Not sure there. Stajan in between Bollig and McGrattan? Far cry from the previous season’s top six minutes, for sure.
Ever the consummate helper
And Stajan took it in stride.
When once the Flames were a team with no centres, suddenly, they had a lot of them. So many that centres were being asked to play on the wing instead of the other way around. And these multitude of centres all had one thing in common: they were all essentially children. Backlund, 25 years old at the start of the season and an NHL veteran of four seasons, was the only one with anything resembling actual experience.
Stajan, then 30, was the old man of the group. So it was Stajan and Backlund teaming up to take the most defensive zone starts of the group. It’s not a coincidence that the players with the most experience – the only ones that had more than 100 games – were placed in a position of disadvantage, because they were the ones best equipped for it.
There was, of course, a pretty massive hiccup when everyone went down and suddenly Sean Monahan and his 86 NHL games became the veteran centre on the team, forcing him to take those really hard minutes. When Stajan came back – the first of the three fallen to do so – he resumed his post.
The major benefit? He prevented rookie recall Markus Granlund from having to face any hard minutes. And while Stajan is the least sheltered centre on the Flames when it comes to zone starts, Granlund is the most. A decade Stajan’s junior, Granlund wouldn’t have been able to handle starting in the defensive zone so often. Stajan took that pressure off of him. Just as he did for Josh Jooris, too. And Monahan and Colborne the year before. And Backlund the year before that.
He never had another 50 point season. He just quietly helped out instead. That’s been his role since the Flames finally headed towards their rebuild: nothing flashy, but a lot of substance.
Once you find your centre…
Stajan has not only ensured the less experienced crowd would have easier circumstances to play in: he’s made his linemates better, too.
For example, take the latest incarnation of the Flames’ fourth line. There hasn’t been a lot of time spent together – just 16:50 with Drew Shore, and 55:42 with Michael Ferland – but look at how much Stajan’s presence has benefited them.
The minutes together are absolutely tiny, and both rookies have spent more time with other players than they have with Stajan. It’s also important to note that Stajan and Shore have started most of their shifts in the neutral zone together, and never one in the defensive zone (100%); while Stajan and Ferland have not had it quite so easy (43.5%).
Still, when you don’t have much to go on, the least you can ask is for something positive. And Stajan with Shore and Ferland has been a massive positive. As time goes on, the numbers will almost certainly regress towards something less extreme, but having a positive start is pretty important.
For a more reliable sample size, look at Stajan’s most common linemates: Bollig (267:34), current top six forward Lance Bouma (160:29, back when he was fourth liner Lance Bouma), and secret possession weapon Paul Byron (118:53). Those are the only guys Stajan, who has over 500 minutes of 5v5 even strength time himself this season, has played more than 100 minutes with.
Byron is the least troubling part of all this, what with him having the benefit of being pretty good in his own right. Bouma has the benefit of now most often playing with Mikael friggin’ Backlund who, as was earlier established, has been one of the Flames’ most reliable pivots right alongside Stajan, only better; still, the easier circumstances with Stajan helped him out more. Bollig, meanwhile, is a functioning human being, so that’s good, but he functions a hell of a lot better with Stajan, and that’s with a 31.2% offensive zone start.
Even though Stajan tends to get not-great minutes, he’s functioned adequately enough in them, with a CF rel of 0.15%, just barely positive whilst playing most often in the defensive zone with players he needs to prop up. He helps keep those who might have difficulties away from hard situations, or at least helps them overcome. If there’s a problem to be found on the Flames – and there are several, but that’s the consequence of rebuilding – Stajan is not one of them.
Three years remaining on contract
That said, it’s hard to see Stajan ever playing a top six role for the Flames again. Not with Backlund and Monahan around. Certainly not with Sam Bennett right around the corner. While Stajan may not have been fourth line-worthy this season, next season, that could very well be where he properly ends up.
Because the Flames are in an extremely favourable position cap-wise, his contract isn’t a financial detriment. It’s a little too long, but it isn’t so expensive as to make Stajan totally untradeable. And, worst case scenario, he remains a mentor who helps shelter prospects, and prevents them from entering the NHL too early.
Stajan certainly isn’t in an ideal position, but it’s one this rebuilding team has made work to its advantage, at least for the time being. And as long as he continues putting rookies in good situations and setting a good example, he’s a good piece to have.