Many would characterize the modest improvement in Calgary Flames' centre Matt Stajan's recent play as making the most of a second chance. Truth be told, it's more like a fifth chance for Stajan. Or a sixth. Stajan is the last remaining piece of one of the more ill-fated swaps in Calgary Flames history, a seven-player deal two years ago which saw Dion Phaneuf, Freddie Sjostrom and defensive prospect Keith Aulie land in Toronto with the Maple Leafs. In exchange, the Flames received defenceman Ian White, forwards Niklas Hagman and Jamal Mayers, plus Stajan. White, Hagman and Mayers had short-lived stays with Calgary; Stajan is around, largely because of the architect of that trade with the Leafs, Darryl Sutter, immediately signed him to a four-year, $14-million (U.S.) contract extension.
Players earning those kinds of dollars are expected to contribute occasionally on offence and Stajan received a top-six role almost as soon as he arrived with the team. But for whatever reason, his production fell off a cliff – remember, Stajan once scored a respectable 57 points for the Leafs – and he soon started to skid down the depth chart, landing with a thunk as the fourth-line centre who would occasionally be exiled to the press box.
But as the bodies kept falling in Calgary and with as many as six regular forwards lost to injury, coach Brent Sutter had little choice last week but to bump Stajan up to the top line with Alex Tanguay and Jarome Iginla. A unit that previously had little chemistry suddenly is demonstrating lots, or enough anyway – although in fairness, it is Tanguay's creativity and Iginla's finishing abilities that mostly helped push along Stajan's numbers. Even so, the Flames are in no position to wonder why there's this minor renaissance; they are simply happy that he is.
Calgary is in its usual 11th-hour push for a playoff spot and following Sunday's 4-3 win against the Minnesota Wild, is technically in eighth place in the Western Conference, a point ahead of the San Jose Sharks entering play Monday. The Sharks met the Oilers in Edmonton on Monday and then visit the Flames Tuesday. After the Phoenix Coyotes come in Thursday, Calgary plays four of its next five on the road, a stretch that will ultimately make-or-break their playoff push.
What's interesting about this latest surge by Calgary is that it is coming in a year when its performance in extra time is atrocious – 4-12 overall, 3-7 in the shootout. Still, there is a silver lining in that. Under current NHL rules, the primary playoff tiebreaker is regulation and overtime wins, one area where Calgary has a big lead over the Colorado Avalanche and respectable numbers vis-à-vis all of its closest competitors.
So if the Flames get to eighth in what is currently a five-team race (Calgary, Phoenix, Colorado, San Jose, Los Angeles Kings) for two spots, the tiebreakers should work in their favour.
The other thing that's attractive about the schedule is the number of games against the teams that they're competing with. If Calgary wins the majority of games against its primary opponents (Colorado twice and the Dallas Stars twice), they have a chance.
Some would argue that finishing eighth is a disaster, but the Flames have made these last-gasp pushes in the past and come up looking good. As St. Louis Blues' GM Doug Armstrong put it last week, in the West, all you need to do is get in. Once there, anything can happen.
In the meantime, they need Stajan to quietly chug along. He is a skilled player, with some flaws in his game and oh-so-fragile confidence, which is why Tanguay is talking him up; and Iginla too, and even Sutter had praise following the win over Winnipeg Friday, his first night on the line.
Teams are always hoping for unexpected playoff scoring heroes to emerge; in Calgary, with playoffs no sure thing, the need is to develop scoring heroes down the stretch. Cue Mr. Stajan. Not only is Phaneuf the Leaf captain, Toronto managed to flip Aulie to the Tampa Bay Lightning for Carter Ashton, a former first-round draft choice and the sort of young forward the Flames are just aching over organizationally.
For years, Stajan carried that burden. He was to this generation of Flames' fans what Gary Leeman was to the last – a player who, in 1993, cost Calgary the services of future Hall Of Famer Doug Gilmour in another hopelessly one-sided transaction between the Flames and the Leafs. Maybe if Stajan can keep this up for a little while longer, that contract and that deal won't look nearly as grotesque as it did a month or so ago.