When you think about the Calgary Flames, or you’re asked by anybody unfamiliar with the team about the core components of the team’s rebuild, odds are a few names likely come to mind. The most obvious are the team’s young scoring leaders like Johnny Gaudreau, Sam Bennett and Sean Monahan, as well as the players that are part of the leadership core of the team like captain Mark Giordano and alternates Kris Russell, Dennis Wideman, and more recently, also T.J. Brodie.
One player that has fallen into the background a bit, unduly so given his contributions to the club over the past six seasons, is Matt Stajan. While he was once a tremendously important player on a team that was really shallow in reliable, veteran centers, his biggest impact on the Flames is being felt off the ice.
It’s a bit funny, in retrospect, to consider that Stajan is the only player in the Flames organization left over from the Dion Phaneuf mega-deal. He’s also the third-oldest player on the club, right behind Jonas Hiller (34) and Deryk Engelland (33). Originally drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2002, this Ontario Hockey League product honed his craft with the Belleville Bulls before making his NHL debut as an 19-year-old in the spring of 2003 and cracking the Leafs roster full-time prior to his 20th birthday.
His similar background and experience as a young player in a really tough league isn’t lost on Calgary’s youngsters, especially those that grew up in Ontario.
“He kinda went through the same process I went through,” said Sean Monahan. “He came from the
OHL and as a young guy he went straight to the NHL, so I think obviously
growing up I watched him when he was playing on the Leafs. Actually, I
really liked how he played. When I came here, he was a great veteran
guy, I learned a lot from him. I talked to him every day, especially my
first year. He helped me out a lot, let me know what was right and
wrong, how to be a better player and the little things you have to do to
be a successful centerman.”
“Staj is awesome, I remember watching him on the Leafs when I was little,” said Sam Bennett.
“He was one of my favourite players, so to be able to have him as kinda
like a mentor now, and have him be around me in my first year, it’s been
huge. He’s been one of the best guys to take me under his wing, really
show me the ropes.”
(If you want to feel old, consider this: when Stajan debuted in the NHL, Bennett was six years old.)
Nobody has taken more face-offs than Stajan since he arrived in Calgary. (He’s taken nearly 300 more than the next-most, Mikael Backlund.) Of the 12 players with 500+ draws taken – which accounts for all the quasi-centers, only Jarome Iginla, Brendan Morrison and Joe Colborne have a higher winning percentage. His status as the team’s face-off king has been challenged as the club’s younger players have progressed. He was the team’s best regular face-off man in 2013-14 and 2014-15, but Sean Monahan and Mikael Backlund have progressed to the point where Stajan’s much more of a depth player than a focal point for the club.
That said, he’s a depth player that’s still a sentimental favourite and a consummate team player on and off the ice. Ask around the Flames locker room, and you’ll have no shortage of players commenting on how much Stajan has meant to the group – particularly from the team’s young core players.
“He’s just that calming influence,” said Joe Colborne. “He sees the ups and downs you go
through. He’s been through it all before. He’s that guy that you can
always talk to, just one-on-one quietly when you’re not unsure about
something or you’re a little out of your comfort zone I guess being a
young NHLer. He really took me, Monny, Boums, everyone, Johnny and now
Benny – Benny’s down there sitting by him down at that end – he’s that
quiet, kinda understated presence that you don’t notice on the
scoresheet but we definitely notice in the room.”
If we were asked to put together a highlight reel of the Flames rebuild at this point, there would be a couple key moments that center on Matt Stajan. The first was from the spring of 2014. The team was well out of the post-season, and Stajan left the team for the birth of his first child. Tragically, his newborn passed away, and Stajan understandably took some time away from the game. Let’s be honest: with how far gone the season was and the difficult circumstances, nobody would’ve blamed him for taking an extended absence. He returned to the team on March 18 and had a four-point outburst in his third game back. This was the goal he scored.
The other big highlight of Stajan’s Calgary tenure – and the past few years in general – came in last year’s post-season.
Let’s be honest here: Stajan’s not the player he once was, probably a product of the wear and tear he’s amassed playing a defensive role over the past several seasons with the Flames, and his offensive production over the remaining two seasons of his current deal most likely won’t justify his $3.125 million cap hit.
And that’s fine, because I strongly doubt that (then-interim general manager) Brian Burke looked at Stajan’s modest offensive totals when he signed him to a contract extension. Or that he strongly considered Stajan’s flat possession numbers, either. Stajan’s in Calgary so that the team’s young guns have a mentor to guide them and help mold them into a group that can lead the Flames back into playoff contention.
“He’s a leader,” said Monahan. “As a first-year guy coming into the league, he was a guy I leaned on a lot and he really helped me out.”
“He plays a huge role on this team,” said Bennett. “He’s one of the key leaders on this team. He’s unbelievable, penalty killing, blocking shots. He’s a heart-and-soul guy that really helps this team thrive.”
Because of his age and declining production, I think it’s a safe bet that the emergence of younger players and recruitment of free agents will probably start pushing Stajan to the press box at times next season (and the year after that). That’s fine. That was likely part of the idea when he signed his extension; Stajan’s gradually morphing into late-stage Stephane Yelle; a valuable locker room presence and off-ice leader, but also one that will occasionally win key face-offs and score goals that end up on the highlight reel. With forwards like Mark Jankowski and Andrew Mangiapane likely turning pro next season, there will soon a fresh batch of players for Stajan to work with.
Is it ideal to be spending $3.125 million of cap space on your 13th or 14th forward? Probably not. But Stajan’s skill-set makes him possibly the ideal extra forward to carry on a team’s roster.