Time For Some Matt Stajan Appreciation

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.

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.

stajanrookiewowy

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.

stajanlinematewowy

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.

  • MonsterPod

    Meh… Matty Staj, Matty Staj. What to do? How to feel?

    Josh Jooris who? Marcus Granlund what? They play higher in the depth chart.

    If Stajan was that good, it would make sense to line up Monahan 1, Backlund 2, and put Stajan on the third line with talent like Raymond and Colborne.

    I actually like the look of that line, but why oh why is he stuck on the fourth line with trim minutes?

    I think it’s because Staj is just kinda meh. He’s not terribly physical, not amazing in the dot, not a shot blocking machine like Bouma. Sure, he kills penalties all right and has good hands and is a nice guy, but he doesn’t seem to fit 1, 2, 3, or 4. That’s what I’ve always thought about him.

    First line center scores. Second line ditto and backchecks. Third line center should be a Jarrett Stoll type: good size, hits, faceoff specialist, shut down guy. And fourth is a place most teams try to save money.

    I agree that Staj is not a problem. Too much $$ for too long, but at this point, who cares? Nice guy, veteran presence, but I’m not convinced that if he went away — like Glencross — that the boat would be rocked much at all.

    The Phaneuf trade was horrid only because of how overrated he was and continues to be. The return should have been better. But I don’t hold that against Matty at all. That said, I wish Burke would have let him walk. When Bennett comes up next year, I have a feeling Staj is gonna be in the way.

    • Greg

      I don’t see stajan getting in Bennett’s way at all next year. Worst case, they’ll move him or Jooris to the wing to make room.

      $3.5M is definitely too much for a 4th line center, but Stajan would be a third liner on most teams. The luxury of having him play on the 4th line, able to move up for injuries, play with younger wingers, take tough assignments, etc is fantastic. In games I’ve watched this year, it’s the depth we have at forward that helps us stick with other teams and compensate for the lack of depth in defence.

      IMHO we are getting full value for stajan this year and likely will at least for next too. Beyond that, it might start becoming a luxury we can’t afford, but for now he’s a definite asset.

    • Bean-counting cowboy

      I agree with a good portion of your basic premise. However I think Stajan could have played 3rd line minutes this year. I think the reason he didn’t is development related. The Org wants to see what it has in guys like Jooris, Colborne, Granlund and even Shore at center. It’s harder to evaluate them if they have limited minutes and are playing with plugs.

      Stajan is nice to have on a rebuilding team for the exact reasons stated in the article. He can shelter the young guys and allow them high ground. If we have center injuries (ie Backlund or Monahan), Staj can fill in and allow the young guys to still get high ground.

      As more players progress and join the roster (ie Bennett), Stajan will be a good soldier if he is our 23rd roster player sitting in the press box ala McGrattan(better than a young guy there) – then he is there for duty when injuries hit.

  • DM

    Good article Ari.

    I think the points about unfair expectations of Matt Stajan upon his arrival are valid. Listening to call in shows etc., it always seemed that people venting about Stajan seemed more like people with general anger over the state of the team, yet they were unsure of where to direct it. It also goes without saying that this poor guy has had more than his fair share of dismal luck both professionally (numerous injuries) and personally during his time in Calgary. Yet he has always been a consummate pro, doing whatever has been asked of him.
    The numbers definitely seem to back up what I’ve seen from him in the last two years – he always seems noticeable for the right reasons despite limited ice time, particularly since his latest return after the birth of his son. I’m sure Matt would love more ice, but everyone knows, including Matt, that this simply isn’t going to happen, nor should it.
    Although the price tag is perhaps a tad high for a 4C, I think he’s done a good job in the role and you could do significantly worse there. I think it’s important to note that having someone in that role that accepts it for what it is, and does a good job at it without complaint is very important to the hierarchy and chemistry in the room. There’s definitely a reason all the guys seem to love him.

  • beloch

    Monahan, Backlund, and Bennett are certain to be the top three centers next season. We can probably expect Backs to spend part of the season injured, but that’s not for sure. That leaves Jooris, Granlund, and Stajan to fight over the fourth line center job. Stajan has the least long-term upside, so he’s likely to be the first one traded.

    Stajan probably does have some trade value. As Flames fans, we’re grown accustomed to seeing spart-parts defenders such as Diaz or Schlemko come into the team and play a much bigger role than they ever had a chance to play on their old teams. Matt Stajan is likely to be that kind of player for another team.

    • everton fc

      I think Arii’s last sentence says it all.

      Stajan will get the nod next season. Jooris can play wing. Granlund can perhaps learn wing, or be the first call-up he’s been all year. Shore wasn’t mentioned, but he’ll be groomed for the wing. I see Raymond and Colborne moved. I hope so, anyway. Gives Byron and Granlund a shot at real minutes, though I can’t see us deploying both, on a team looking to get bigger.

      Just my take. Stajan’s character rubs off on guys. I’ve heard Ferland say the same about Bouma. I know that’s cliché, but any of us who’ve played sports or been in the workplace know the truth around this. These character guys inspire. Everyone’s motivated. Inspiration is the key. And those uninspired need to be moved on down the road. Coaches and players alike.

      I can’t see them deploying Granlund in a 4th line role. And I see Jooris on the wing. I think Raymond and Colborne should be shopped, along with one of our goalies. This keeps Stajan here, on board, as he should be.

  • beloch

    Well done Arii!

    As the Flames are still developing young talent with more on the way sooner than later, Stajan is a key piece of the puzzle and would be worth keeping him around into the final year of his contract. Obviously, Burkie (or was it the Fat Man? or the combo?) saw some value in him.

    To me, Colborne and Raymond are more expendable on a team that has talented forward prospects coming up soon. If Ferland can get his scoring touch back….

  • beloch

    I never liked the trade when we shipped out Phaneuf for Stajan, that is, until Bob Hartley came along. Stajan didn’t live up to much of anything under Brent Sutter, but he found his game under a new regime. It was Stajan on Sunday, pulling fourth line minutes who refused to give up on the puck that led to Michael Ferland’s first NHL goal. What a difference between last year’s fourth line and this. The team still needs veteran leadership and quality people, and Stajan seems to fit the bill.

  • Nick24

    I’m a big fan of Stajan. I think its important to have quality depth that can move up your line up if need be. Stajan can do that. He may play a limited role on the team, but it’s still an vital one.

    • ChinookArchYYC

      I took a lot of arrows defending Stajan on this site, in the B. Sutter days. Brent almost destroyed his confidence and was very punitive in his treatment of Stajan. Most Flames fans had nothing but vitriol for him back then. Glad to see he seems to have earned the respect of the fan base again.

  • Nick24

    There really is no difference for this team between a “3rd” line and a “4th” line (other than one has Mason Raymond driving deep into the offensive zone and then turning the puck over expectedly).

    Ferland-Stajan-Shore is a hell of a line. Just give ’em more minutes, they can handle them. They’re a better line than Raymond-Granlund-Colborne at least. Personally I want me some Byron-Colborne-Jones + Bouma-Backlund-Jooris in the middle 6.

    • everton fc

      The Colborne experiment has to end. And Raymond’s best days are behind him here; he may be able to be a 40-point player elsewhere. Ditto Colborne.

      But not here.

      Bouma-Backlund-Jones – one of the best 3rd lines in the league. And Stajan could still play 3rd line minutes on quite a few teams.

      Always hoped he’d find a niche here, as he seems a decent, genuine guy. As a parent, we need more of these decent, genuine guys in sports.

    • Greg

      Good question… I would think he is and might be a nice boost for our playoff race.

      Surprising as heck they are getting beat so bad though. At least he’s got a couple points but not at all what I was expecting after the way they played since he joined the team.

  • RKD

    No one likes the contract but to have Stajan mentor the kids into good habits will pay big dividends down the road. If he’s hustling up and down the ice Granlund and Shore are going to take notice on how hard you need to work in this league. He can still chip in offensively from time to time and he’s good option to have to take those tough minutes.

  • I was unimpressed with Stajan as I was unimpressed with all the players we got for Phaneuf. There was a lot of things to be unimpressed with back then in Darryl Sutter’s tenure as GM. Two GMs and a VP of Hockey Ops named Brian Burke later we’re finally turned around and I’m impressed Stajan put up with it and is still here.

  • MonsterPod

    Amazing to see the turn-around in the fanbase’s perception of Stajan in the last five years. I guess it all comes down to expectations, and being the centrepiece of the Phaneuf trade definitely placed some on Matty Franchise.

    A key aspect of all this – as has been pointed out by others – is Stajan’s character. He is just the unassuming, calm, low-maintenance character guy every successful team needs. You think our plethora of young pups don’t see this veteran playing a role he’s over-qualified for, not complaining, and playing that role as best he can? Can’t put value on that type of character and how it can trickle down to his teammates.

    I hope he can stay at least until year three of his contract, if not all of it, as that veteran mentor for the plugs and depth players in particular.

  • Good perspective on Matt Stajan. Although his rapid tumble down the ranks in our system, as you pointed out, leaves me a bit concerned. At the time of his re-signing I thought the contract sounded pretty reasonable… however, with the pace of Sean Money’s progression and Bennett right around the corner, like you say, we are left in a position where we are paying our 4th line center $3.125M/year.

    The time is coming for BT to show us which type of GM cloth he was cut from…

  • hulkingloooooob

    well. he’s certainly an important veteran part of the rebuild and for that we thank him. further more, he seems to perform better with less pressure. ie. as a bottom 6 forward, not top 6. these days you not only need to roll 4 lines to win the cup, but it’s increasingly the 3rd and 4th lines who make the biggest difference in the playoffs.

    I think a little less limelight during the regular season turns into a very important role come playoffs. It took me a long time to accept Stajan, but I finally feel like he’s found his spot. I’m more then happy to pay him 3+ a season to anchor a “difficult to play against” fourth line.

    THANKS STAGE! YER A BEAST!

    (another thought….Hudler to help along the top 6 prospects and Stajan to help along the bottom 6 prospects. almost seems ideal right? and they are both doing a super job of just that!)