Last night, after just nine playoff games in his 11-year career, Matt Stajan scored his first ever playoff goal. It wasn't just any goal, though. It was beyond dramatic: down 3-0 early on, potentially being forced back to Vancouver, and yet on the verge of making it to the second round for the first time in 11 years (and 10 NHL seasons), Stajan buried the puck for the first time since March 11, when he scored two goals against... the Anaheim Ducks.
That's gotta be a good sign, right?
The last two Flames to score series-winning goals were Doug Gilmour and Martin Gelinas. It's nice, in a way: the highest Flames draft pick of all time models himself after and was coached by Gilmour, and Gelinas is an assistant coach with the team he nearly led all the way in 2004. But it was time for some new blood, and with the Flames holding the Canucks to the brink, it would have to come from someone new.
A team defined by rookies and kids all season long - and a team that ramped it up even further in the playoffs by adding Michael Ferland and Sam Bennett to its regular lineup - and it would have made sense for a new legend to grow even more, right?
It would have, but that's not what happened. Instead, probably the most deserving guy of them all got the first Flames series winner in over a decade.
The Dion Phaneuf trade... or is it the Matt Stajan trade, now?
Trading Phaneuf rocked the Flames' world in several ways, but the one with the most lasting effects may very well have been just how underwhelming the return was.
Former Calder finalist and 20 goal scorer Dion Phaneuf, alongside Keith Aulie and Fredrik Sjostrom, for Matt Stajan, Niklas Hagman, Jamal Mayers, and Ian White? What? And Stajan is supposed to be the centre of the trade? Stajan's going to be Jarome Iginla's first line centre?
Sure, Stajan was a 26-year-old coming off two back-to-back 50 point seasons, but... seriously, Phaneuf for Stajan?
Looks pretty good in hindsight now, doesn't it?
Stajan got off to a bad start in Calgary. Traded for what was once considered the future of its defence, immediately re-signed to a four-year deal, and subsequently maligned by head coach Brent Sutter for years, it looked awful.
Except Stajan never once sulked, and constantly rebranded himself. When Bob Hartley came in, he went back up to big minutes, but not many points. By that time it was just easier to accept his contract. He seemed like a pretty nice, inoffensive dude. Not the first line centre Darryl Sutter envisioned, but not the worst, either.
Five years later, and Stajan and Phaneuf are the only pieces from that trade to still be on their new teams. That may not be true for Phaneuf all that much longer, depending on what the Leafs decide to do with him.
The Flames, though, seemed pretty happy with Stajan, even if the emergences of Sean Monahan, Mikael Backlund, and even Josh Jooris or on occasion Markus Granlund had pushed him into a bottom role. He got another four year extension, and although it may have been a touch too long, there wasn't really any uproar from it.
Calgary was happy to have Stajan before, but almost certainly much more now.
The fourth liner far above such a skillset
This season, Stajan ended up being a $3.125 million fourth liner. It probably wasn't the actual role he should have been playing, but it's what he was given, and he took it in stride.
His most common linemate throughout the regular season was Brandon Bollig, and whatever your thoughts on Bollig may be, he's definitely a fourth line guy at most. Stajan was supposed to have Alex Tanguay flanking his left; Bollig is no Tanguay.
Bollig was significantly better on the ice with Stajan bringing up the middle. Without him, he was 35.4% in corsi events for. If you can't break even, that's really no good. With Stajan, however, Bollig shot up to 47.2%: still not good, but far from being the total trainwreck he otherwise was.
It wasn't just Bollig he helped, though. Stajan inadvertently helped that massive group of Flames rookies. He took the bulk of defensive zone starts, allowing someone like Johnny Gaudreau to comfortably start primarily in the offensive zone, putting him in better position to succeed.
He's even stepped it up in the playoffs, as his line faces the toughest competition and most often outside of the offensive zone. In Game 6, Stajan played 17:28 minutes, 15:58 of which were at even strength. He faced off against the Sedins for 12-13 minutes. That's incredibly tough competition, especially in an elimination game, even for a veteran like Stajan. But not only did he help keep them (mostly) off the scoreboard: he scored, too. With them out on the ice.
All the while continuing that "helping out rookies" thing. Ferland joined Stajan's line for nearly 100 regular season even strength minutes, and together, the two jumped up to 49.0% corsi events for. Still not perfect, but better than where they had been. That carried on into the playoffs, where the two formed two-thirds of a very solid third line that ended up doing a heck of a lot for the Flames.
Stajan was never a fourth liner; although, when Bennett makes the switch to centre, he probably will be. There's nothing wrong with that, though. He hasn't complained about being behind Monahan and Backlund, and he probably won't start any time soon.
He's been a Flame for five seasons now. This is his team, and he's shown a willingness to contribute through any means asked of him. Culminating with him scoring a series winner?
Couldn't have happened to anyone more deserving
Yeah, that'll do it.
The ultimate takeaway with Stajan is that he is the ultimate team player. Asked to play in a role beneath him? He'll do it. He'll help the kids out along the way, taking the no glory, very tough minutes so they can thrive.
Stajan came to the Flames as a 27 year old, and he's 31 now, and barring a trade, he'll be in Calgary until he's at least 35. That's a really, really long time to commit to one team. Especially a team that gives you pretty decent contracts, but then keeps you on the bottom six.
Here's the big thing, though: this is Stajan's first time really being on a playoff team. He played three post-season games as a rookie back in 2004, but what is that, really? That's hardly anything.
Stajan has gone through over a decade of NHL experience with no hardware and no chances at hardware to show for it. He's continued playing games, season after season, on hopeless teams, drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs and then brought out to Calgary right when Calgary stopped attending the dance.
This is his first time. And after everything - the repeated failures, the bad teams, the trade scorn, to speak absolutely nothing of his personal life - the quiet veteran who has always put his head down and gone to work, helping his teammates all the while, has made Flames history, scoring the franchise's first series-winning goal in far too long.
It wasn't Jiri Hudler, who has already won a Stanley Cup, and led the team in scoring. It wasn't Johnny Gaudreau, who stole headlines all year long and cemented himself as a very strong rookie of the year candidate. It wasn't Sean Monahan, who emerged as a two-way force far earlier than anyone would have reasonably expected.
It was Matt Stajan, and nobody earned it more than him.