Appreciating Matt Stajan

Updated: January 11, 2018 at 1:28 am by Pat Steinberg

One of the more surprising and positive things we’ve seen in the early stages of the season is the performance of Matt Stajan. With a lot of people questioning his role on the team heading into training camp, Stajan has done a nice job silencing those critics for the time being thanks to a stellar start to his 2016-17 campaign. 

Stajan has been one of Calgary’s most consistent performers through 10 games and I think he’s deserving of some recognition.

Almost everything has been positive when talking about Stajan this season. He’s posted solid traditional and underlying numbers, he’s been good by the eye, and he remains one of the most likeable guys on the Flames. He’s in a very specific role and he’s played that role about as good as he possibly can. Let’s delve a little more into how good Stajan has been through the first eighth of the season.

Performance

Stajan’s two-way work this season has been really, really good. Despite seeing next to no offensive zone starts through the first 10 games, he’s one of Calgary’s top possession players and has spent more time in the offensive zone than almost any other forward on the team. The table below gives a pretty good representation of Stajan’s effectiveness thus far.

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In talking to head coach Glen Gulutzan over the weekend, he said he feels as comfortable throwing Stajan’s line over the boards for defensive zone faceoffs as he does with Mikael Backlund’s shutdown line right now. With the way he’s performed, you can understand why. Stajan’s line has done a great job of putting the next line up in a spot to succeed by finishing as many shifts at the right end of the ice.

A big part of Stajan’s success right now comes from how smart a player he is. Skating has never been his strongest attribute and, at the age of 32, foot speed is something he struggles with compared to other players. Stajan is making up for that right now, though, by putting himself in the right spots, anticipating well, and using his linemates extremely well (more on that later). He is one of the smartest players on the team and that’s coming through in spades right now.

Another huge reason for Stajan’s great start is his work in the faceoff dot. To date, Stajan has been Calgary’s best faceoff man and he’s shown a huge uptick in that area from what we’ve seen in recent years, specifically last season. Below is Stajan’s work in the faceoff dot over the last number of seasons.

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Even if the faceoff numbers come down a little bit, if Stajan can stay up above 50% for the rest of the season, he’s going to keep his value pretty high with the Flames. Even if his play falls off a little bit from what we’ve seen to date, having someone who can win key faceoffs is obviously huge.

Finally, there’s the eye test. By my eye, Stajan has not only been strong defensively and on the penalty kill, he’s also been really engaged offensively, which has been maybe the most surprising thing. Over the last few years, Stajan’s defensive work has always been consistently solid, but there hasn’t been much there offensively. With four points in 10 games, the counting numbers are respectable, but it’s his team-high 53.5% scoring chance for ratio (courtesy Natural Stat Trick) that really drives it home for me.

Usage

It’s always important in these conversations to infuse a steady dose of context. How a player is used is crucial in making a fair evaluation of him, and it’s also important in getting the most out of him. In Stajan’s case, he’s being used as Calgary’s fourth centre in a primarily defensive role, as we touched on earlier.

For the most part, Stajan hasn’t seen a ton of top end matchups, as lines anchored by Backlund, Sam Bennett, and Sean Monahan have taken tougher assignments. That doesn’t diminish Stajan’s effectiveness, though; instead, it underlines the value of depth down the middle, especially when that depth is doing its job at a high level.

It’s early yet, but Stajan’s most frequent winger has been Micheal Ferland and the two have formed a very nice pairing thus far. After Ferland, Alex Chiasson has seen the most time on Stajan’s flank; both wingers have benefited greatly from their centre’s strong start, as illustrated below.

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Of course, stats like these are only telling to a point with such a small sample size, but it certainly does show how Stajan has elevated his linemates through 10 games. That’s not to knock Ferland or Chiasson, either. Ferland has been far more effective than he was really at any point last year and I really like the way he’s played. Chiasson has shown some nice flashes, too, and contributed in his own right when playing with Stajan. In the end, though, the numbers above add another nice feather to Stajan’s cap.

As I mentioned earlier, Gulutzan feels extremely comfortable in using Stajan in tough spots at any point in a game. The head coach has used Stajan’s line essentially as a second shutdown unit so far and, in defensive situations, has even thrown it out there against some top end players on the other side.

The duo of Backlund and Michael Frolik is still taking the lion’s share of the most difficult matchups, especially at home, but having confidence in Stajan’s group is of huge added value to the Flames. With Backlund and Stajan taking so much of the defensive responsibility right now, it really frees up Monahan and Gaudreau for offensively-skewed minutes.

Conclusion

I’ll be honest: I definitely had some questions about Stajan’s future in Calgary heading into the season, too. To this point, though, those questions seem completely unfounded, because he has been one of the team’s most consistent and effective forwards.

Stajan is slotted properly and is doing about as much as he can with his 12-13 minutes of ice time per night. I don’t know if he’s going to stay at this level all season long, but if he can stay even close to it, Stajan will remain very valuable for the Flames. Without a crystal ball, though, all we can do is look at what he’s done so far and appreciate it, because Stajan has been very, very good.