In all facets of life, there can be a tendency to wear out one’s welcome. Professional sports is certainly no exception; in fact, it’s one of the easier avenues to feel this. After all, if a player is signed for too long, well… You’re commenting on their performance. And you want that to go away. And that’s more than fair.
It’s not as though this wholly applies to Matt Stajan, though.
Stajan has gone through something of an odd path throughout his time as a Flame. When he was acquired, he was slated to be the team’s first line centre: the pivot Jarome Iginla never had but desperately deserved.
Only that never quite worked out. The season he was traded he had 57 points; he’s had all of two 30-point seasons since then as Iginla was traded, the Flames entered a rebuild, and he eventually found himself on the fourth line with a $3.5 million cap hit – a contract extension signed shortly after turning 30 and when he was in the midst of the last 30-point season he’s had. Maybe a little overpaid, maybe a year too long and, well, here we are, in that final year.
So the trajectory of his Flames career and tenure over his contract hasn’t gone as originally envisioned. And though he needs just 64 games to hit 1,000 NHL games played, there is a chance he doesn’t hit that milestone.
But it’s not as though he’s useless or an active detriment to the team. It’s not as though his presence is singlehandedly keeping Mark Jankowski, or any other prospect, out of the NHL. And it’s not as though, should anyone be called up, he wouldn’t be able to help that prospect.
After all, this is a player who has been up and down and all through the lineup as a centreman. If anyone’s going to know the ins and outs of this particular job, it’s Stajan. By all accounts, he is genuinely good in the room.
And he still has on-ice value, which is probably a bit more important than all those other things. It’s not as though any team needs a paid best friend taking up cap space – and Stajan is worth more than just that.
Take the 2016-17 season. He scored 23 points from the fourth line, a decent uptick at this stage of his career. He only averaged 12:41 a game; hardly stealing minutes from anyone else.
And he was a 49.04% CF player – 12th among any Flames who played a regular shift, sandwiched right between Micheal Ferland and Sam Bennett – with a 35.29% zone start ratio, the second worst amongst regulars, with only Matthew Tkachuk having a slightly harder go of things and Mikael Backlund slightly easier.
Ideally, the fourth line eats minutes without being a detriment. Last season, Stajan did just that: he was asked to play in difficult circumstances and he succeeded far better than any other fourth liner the Flames had at their disposal. He was what allowed the Flames to have a reliable presence that deep in their lineup, which is wholly necessary as teams begin to shift to having four capable lines. He only just barely got out-possessed while starting from a disadvantage more often than not, and there’s a lot of value in that.
The Flames’ fourth line could stand to be better, but Stajan is still its best asset.