If you had asked a year ago who the Calgary Flames were thinking they would probably lose in the upcoming National Hockey League expansion draft, the answer probably would’ve been veteran center Matt Stajan. With a contract running through the 2017-18 season that pays him $3.125 million against the salary cap, the fourth line pivot seemed like his best days were behind him when the curtain fell on the 2015-16 campaign.
Midway through this season, the Flames are probably hoping that he can stick around if he maintains his current level of play. The 33-year-old will suit up tonight for his 900th NHL regular season game in the midst of an impressive resurgence in his game that has lifted Stajan, and seemingly everybody he plays with this season, into the upper echelon of fourth lines.
A Shaky Arrival to Calgary
Stajan didn’t get off on great footing in this market and it’s primarily for reasons that weren’t his fault. A second round selection of the Toronto Maple Leafs back in 2002, he basically became that organization’s version of Mikael Backlund; he was an effective two-way center who was gradually blossoming into a solid NHL regular but his offensive numbers weren’t anything to write home about.
When the Flames abruptly traded highly-touted 2003 first rounder Dion Phaneuf – a past contender for the Calder and Norris trophies – fans couldn’t help but be a bit disappointed by the return. Family members joked to me that the Flames had shipped their best defenseman to Toronto for a depth center and some random guys, and that was the common perception. Before he had even laced up his skates wearing a Flames sweater, fan sentiment was already somewhat against Stajan.
Then-general manager Darryl Sutter signed him to a contract extension on March 1, 2010 – a month after the trade and after Stajan had played all of seven games with the Flames. He had four points in that span, hardly an offensive output that demanded an immediate extension. His new pact paid him $3.5 million for four seasons.
The Working Man
If you ignore his contractual wrinkles and just focus on the game he plays, there’s an awful lot to like about Stajan. Pretty much since his arrival in Calgary – aside from a few experiments early on where he was pushed into the top six mix – Stajan has been a fixture of the bottom six. Playing in the bottom six means getting sporadic ice time, almost no special teams time aside from the odd penalty kill, and virtually no offensive zone starts. The scorers get the offensive zone starts, the bottom six tries to get them there.
As a result of his status as a bottom six center and the Flames’ unabashed lack of bottom six depth over his tenure, Stajan’s played with a really weird mixed bag of players during his time in Calgary. His top even strength forward linemates (via Hockey Analysis):
- Lee Stempniak
- Curtis Glencross
- Lance Bouma
- David Jones
- Alex Tanguay
- Brandon Bollig
- Jarome Iginla
- Tim Jackman
- Joe Colborne
- Tom Kostopoulos
That’s a weird mixture of players and aside from perhaps Iginla (whose elite years were arguably already in the rear-view mirror by the time Stajan arrived in town), none of these guys are what you would say are elite. In other words? Stajan has had to play hard minutes, and often had to drag grinders along with him as he tried to get the puck up the ice to set the table for the Flames’ offensive guns.
Despite not being a high-end offensive talent, or perhaps in begrudging admiration for him doing yeoman’s work for the club, Stajan has quietly become a fan favourite in Calgary. When he signed another contract extension in January 2014, the fan reaction was more subdued than it was in 2010 – “$3.125 million is a little steep, but he’s steady.”
A Quiet Resurgence
A lot of attention has been paid to the work of the 3M line (Mikael Backlund, Michael Frolik and Matthew Tkachuk) this season, with good reason. However Stajan has quietly been the centerpiece of a very effective fourth line grouping with a rotating cast of characters, with his line posting impressive possession and counting stats despite their woeful zone starts. After years of attempting to drag grinders along with him to set the table for the top six, Stajan’s been joined by a rotating cast of characters (primarily a mix of Garnet Hathaway, Lance Bouma, Micheal Ferland, Freddie Hamilton and Alex Chiasson) that has become adept at creating offensive chances before they shuffle off the ice.
As a consequence, Stajan at mid-season is just a single point shy of his point totals from each of the past two seasons. He’s on pace to accumulate 30 points, which is a level he’s only hit twice during his stint as a Flame (in 2010-11 and 2013-14). After spending most of his Flames tenure underwater possession-wise, he’s a 52.3% Corsi For player through the first 45 games of the season and has been one of the club’s most consistent even strength contributors.
Moreover, he’s been a consistently positive influence on the play and possession stats of his linemates. Check out this comparison of his 10 most frequent linemates and the difference in their Corsi percentages with and without him.
While Stajan’s improved offensive numbers may be a product of some improved shooting percentages from last season – he shot 7.7% last year and is scoring on 12.5% of his shots this season – his underlying numbers and the rest of his stats suggest that he’s coming by these improvements honestly rather than riding a wave of momentum. He has among the worst offensive zone start percentages of any Flames regular (only Bouma starts less often in the offensive end) yet is near the top end of the team’s possession rankings.
Looking At The Future
It’s likely that Stajan will be exposed in the upcoming expansion draft. He’s one of two forwards that is anticipated to be exposed to satisfy the experience requirements, the other being Bouma. He’s older than Bouma and more expensive, so the thought is that Vegas might not want to take his deal on. If that’s the case it’s probably something the Flames would look upon favourably, given how useful Stajan has been for the club this season.
Regardless of what happens in the expansion draft, Stajan’s performance has dictated that he’ll probably hit the 1,000 games mark next season barring anything unforeseen happening. Considering that his play as of a couple seasons ago had many figuring his days in the league were numbered, he’s come a long way in just a short period of time.