Stajan takes advantage of opportunity to play
Calgary veteran a ‘better player’ for sticking with it
Matt Stajan walked out of the Scotiabank Saddledome this week with his head up high and his shoulders square.
The Calgary Flames centre looked nothing like the guy who slumped around these parts for the better part of two seasons looking like Charlie Brown right after Lucy yanked the football away.
Again. And again. And again.
“I think it was my best year personally,” the 29-year-old was saying before the Flames scattered their separate ways for yet another long summer. “The coaching staff showed a lot of confidence in me early in the season and gave me an opportunity.
“I really appreciated that and wanted to make the best of it. I felt like I did a pretty good job.”
Reborn under head coach Bob Hartley, Stajan collected five goals and 18 assists, for 23 points in 43 games. But the most impressive number is his rating of plus-7 on a team with just two players in positive territory.
Somehow, Stajan and Lee Stempniak (plus-2) finished above the equator on a Flames side that proved rancid at times in the defensive zone.
No wonder general manager Jay Feaster singled out Stajan’s turnaround as one of the few bright spots of the 2013 regular season.
“He was obviously active as our player rep, and as one of the members who was part of the negotiating committee on behalf of the NHLPA during the work stoppage,” Feaster said. “And yet, he was very, very diligent about getting himself ready to go and getting himself in shape,
“He came in great shape, and because (of that) he got that opportunity, the coach said, I’m going to use you, I’m going to lean on you.’”
Talk about a different work environment from the one Stajan experienced as a frequent healthy scratch under the old coaching regime.
Looking back, Stajan can pinpoint the exact moment he started to walk away from the permanent cloud that seemed to follow him wherever he went.
“Last year when I was hurt mid-season, things weren’t going great,” he said in what amounts to a major understatement “I was in and out of the lineup. I sat down with some people — some close friends, my wife — and you just talk things through.
“You take a step back and think about yourself. That’s when I really tried to take a lot of pressure off myself. Just go to the rink, be yourself, work as hard as you can and whatever happens, happens.”
No one has ever accused Stajan of not caring. If anything, he cares too much.
The former Toronto Maple Leaf heard the critics howl back in January 2010 when he signed a four-year contract extension with an annual cap hit of $3.5 million. He knew the expectations for improved performance hovered at the same altitude as the Rocky Mountains.
And in the short-term, he failed to deliver.
“You see it so many times when guys move to new teams,” Stajan said. “There’s expectations with a new contract, and you can’t change what you’ve done and the way you’ve played up to that point. Sometimes when you sign a contract, that expectation comes
“If you over-think it, like a lot of guys do – like I did for a bit – you find yourself in trouble.”
That trouble threatened to derail Stajan’s career and possibly even see the Flames use an amnesty buyout to get rid of his contract this summer.
No one is talking like that now.
“I stuck with it,” Stajan said. “I dug my way out. I don’t look back now. I move forward. It’s made me a better player, a better person.
“I have a totally different outlook on hockey, and just life in general.”
With his 30th birthday looming in December, Stajan is one of several Flames veterans praying for a quick reversal of fortune for a Calgary team that has missed the playoffs four years running.
“Obviously, there’s going to be some excitement with the draft picks we have and there’s a lot of cap space, so it will be an interesting summer,” Stajan said. “One thing as a player that makes you feel really comfortable playing here is the ownership group. They want to win, and we want to do it right away. That’s great to know.
“As a player, especially my age, you want to make sure you’re not in an organization where maybe they’re going to take six or seven years to try to turn things around.
“So we’ll see how the summer goes.”
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