Matt Stajan has been a polarizing player during his time with the Flames. As the only player of value to be returned in the Phaneuf trade, he has been given high expectations that he has never seemed to live up to. After a productive first quarter-season in Calgary (3-13-16 in 27 games) as a first line centre, Stajan slowly fell out of favour. For the final two years of the Brent Sutter era, Stajan had a permanent seat in the doghouse. Disappointing production and constant healthy scratches left egg on the face of the front office, and they were soon replaced.
After Hartley became head coach, Stajan finally was able to find and keep a major role on the Flames. On a team that had to employ Steve Begin and Roman Cervenka, it’s not hard to be the #1 centre, but Stajan started to thrive. He scored 23 points in the lockout-shortened season and was one of two players with a positive rating on the team. Last season was his most productive as a Flame, scoring 33 points while eating up an average of 18 minutes per game. Playing solid hockey with a depleted winger corps left an impression on interim-GM Brian Burke, who inked him to a 4-year, $12.5 million extension.
The news was met with warm regard by fans and media. Stajan had finally become the productive player the Flames traded for back in 2010. Being the man with the most NHL experience on the team, he was primed to become the leader for Sean Monahan and Mikael Backlund. The two under-25ers were poised to take over his role as #1 by the time his new contract finished, and with the predicted pace of the rebuild, it would be the right time for him to step down. It’s a sound rebuilding strategy: slowly develop young players under the wing of veterans with contracts that aren’t long term and costly enough to cause headaches for the team.
Flash forward to this season. The rebuild has been expedited by a strong performance from an under-talented team. Call it lucky, call it what you will, but the Flames are in playoff position, partially because of the performance of their centres. Sean Monahan and Mikael Backlund have grown into top six talents very quickly. Monahan has adapted nicely to the top line, facing tough competition every night, being the team’s leading goal scorer, and eating up the most minutes for the forwards. Backlund grew to that point last season, cementing his top six role after working his way out of Hartley’s doghouse. The surprising emergence of Josh Jooris shores up the top nine, leaving Calgary with stability down the middle.
The final piece of the logjam is Sam Bennett. Based on limited preseason performances with a faulty shoulder, it’s hard to see him go back to junior next year. In case he does go back to the CHL, then Drew Shore, Bill Arnold, Markus Granlund, and Max Reinhart will all be fighting for a chance in the NHL. The centre depth the Flames have built after having none of it two years prior is astounding, but leaves it the question of Matt Stajan.
Stajan has made the sudden drop from #1 to #3/4, back to where he started when he came to Calgary. It’s a better position for his skillset. Stajan is a defensive centre, and Hartley uses him as such (21% OZS vs 43% DZS). While he has been relegated to 11 minutes per night in the defensive zone, Stajan is trusted to drive play forward.
Looking at analytics, it appears that Stajan makes the most of his difficult starting position. He has a 45.2% CF, above the team CF of 44.7%. That number is more significant when you consider his average linemates. Hockey isn’t easy when you’re paired with the worst players on the team (you know who I’m talking about) but Stajan does work. When they aren’t with Stajan, Bollig and Engelland have CFs of 35.1% (read: HUMAN DISASTER) and 42.6%, respectively. Those numbers inflate to 46.5% and 49.0% when they are with him.
Stajan also doesn’t drag anyone down by any significant measure, only anchoring down Gio (42.9% with to 47.6% without, and I have a feeling those numbers are influenced heavily by people not named Matt Stajan). These numbers show that Stajan can work with everyone on the roster, and not just a fourth line dud who is incapable of playing anywhere else. He still maintains a positive rating despite being paired with Bollig most often.
Despite being a solid corsi player, Stajan may be obsolete, and it’s probably not through any fault of his own. Since he has been traded to Calgary, the Flames have had some of the worst centre depth in the NHL. In the years where the Flames were officially rebuilding (2012-13, 2013-14) there was almost no one capable of playing centre long term for the team. The best besides Stajan during those years was Mikael Backlund, who looked shaky up until late last year, and sheltered Sean Monahan. He became the #1 out of necessity, and while he has fared well, the Flames have improved centre depth tremendously. He was a key cog in the rebuild era, but he was still a replaceable player. Unfortunately for Stajan, that is what has happened. The top three centres next year could be 21, 26, and 19. Stajan will be 32.
The Flames extended Stajan with the belief that he would be needed to mentor these young centres through the thick and thin of rebuilding. Circumstances changed very quickly. Now they have two young centres that could be on the verge of elite in the next few years and a few more on the farm who could anchor the bottom six. Stajan could be forced out of the lineup by next season.
So what do the Flames do? While the Flames do have the cap room to keep him until 2017-18, the actual issue is the younger centres in the AHL. Reinhart, Shore, and Arnold all have their ELCs end this year and Granlund’s ends in 2016-17. If they have to make a decision about who to keep and who to cut free, they have to decide soon. If they can get all those players on two-way deals, then wonderful, but it is counterproductive to a rebuild to allow young guys to leave in favour of aging veterans.
The best option is to trade him. Stajan has a very friendly contract, decreasing from $3.375 million to $2 million for the remaining term of his deal. If the Flames eat some salary, then it might be too good to turn down. It will be hard to sell a defensive forward that has never really proven to be an offensive force, but there are teams that need a centre, and desperately (the Edmonton Oilers, but please don’t actually trade him there. He deserves better).
Matt Stajan has been a warrior in Calgary. He has dealt with on-ice struggles, personal tragedy, everything between those, and has succeeded in despite of what has been stacked against him. But the clock is ticking, and the Flames will have to make a move.