Friday, November 04, 2016

Wild 22.8 Second Ride: Gritty Final Shift for Stajan Preserves Win, Showcases his Value

The drama was real at SAP Center in San Jose on Thursday night.

Reeling from two straight setbacks. Staggered by having blown a 2-0 third period lead. The Flames were 22.8 seconds away from escaping with two huge points thanks to Matthew Tkachuk's second goal of the night with four minutes to go.

But last year's Stanley Cup finalists were pressing and were not going down without a fight. The face-off was in Calgary's end to the left of Chad Johnson.

At the dot, a rematch.

Exactly eleven seconds earlier in a battle of 32-year-olds with over 1,600 combined NHL games, Matt Stajan had cleanly beaten Joe Pavelski on a draw at that very same spot on the ice.

But could he out-duel the Sharks captain once again?

Tension Mounts

Stajan digs his skates in, legs jutting out like stabilizers on a backhoe. Bent over 90 degrees at the waist, eyes affixed on the puck, his bottom hand is choked so far down the shaft of his stick that his glove is brushing up against the blade. There's a sturdiness to his set-up. Heck, you could probably plunk a piano on his back and he wouldn't quiver.

Across from him, equally locked in, is a guy that scored 52 goals last year between the regular season (38) and Stanley Cup finals (14).

In the tale of the tape, Pavelski is 51.8 percent in face-offs this season compared to 55.9 percent for Stajan, who ranks No. 20 in the league. But don't be too hasty in giving the slight edge to Stajan, last year 'Little Joe' was 55.0 while Stajan was just 47.3.

Winning two straight is a big ask in that part of the rink, at that time in the game and with that much on the line.

There's an early jostle, but linesman Mark Wheler had yet to back up and reveal the dot. Easy fellas, easy.

As they come together again, Wheler finally glides backwards into position and the fencing begins. Battling with every ounce of strength they can muster, the two are both going at it hard. One problem though. Where's the puck? Oh, it's still in Wheler's hand.

False Start

As they untangle, Stajan whacks Pavelski in the back of the head with his stick, Pavelski gives a shot right back, Stajan counters with a right jab.

Exhaustion is setting in and and the puck hasn't touched the ice yet.

They come together one more time and finally the puck is down with Stajan prevailing once again. He works it towards the boards to Mark Giordano, who quickly dishes the puck to TJ Brodie. But Brodie's rim attempt doesn't get out, kept in by ex-Flames defenceman David Schlemko who seals off the boards.

Schlemko spies Pavelski with open space in the slot but the short pass is knocked awry by an alert stick from Stajan. The puck goes to Brodie instead but before he can corral it, it's knocked to the blueline.

Logan Couture gets it and tries to shoot and the puck deflects high in the air. Like a return specialist tracking down a punt, Stajan shuffles to the right face-off dot and tries to bat the puck out of the zone with his glove. He clears it out of immediate danger but an even better athletic play by Brent Burns scrambling across the blue-line keeps it in.

More Danger

As the puck slides down the side boards, Tomas Hertl retrieves it and tries to spin and get the puck on net, but it's blocked by who else, the stick of Stajan. The puck goes to Brodie in the corner, who tries for a second time to rim it out that far side. Again. It's kept in by Schlemko.

The puck goes down the sideboards to Couture, who turns towards the net but before he can shoot, he has the puck knocked off his stick by guess who -- Stajan.

From one side of the ice to the other and back again, active stick the whole time, Stajan looks like a windshield wiper blade on high speed.

Schlemko retrieves the loose puck near the corner only to have it poked off his stick by Giordano. It goes right to Couture, who tries to shoot again but it's blocked by Giordano and bounds into the air. The Flames defenceman bats it into the corner where just before the buzzer goes, Stajan gets his stick on the puck one last time, knocking it behind the net and out of harm's way.

Horn sounds, a fist pump from Stajan with whatever energy he has left, and it's a victory hug for Johnson.

What a ride.

Rock Solid All Season

Last weekend, before the Flames headed out of town, I spent some time at the Saddledome chatting with Stajan, as well as talking to others about Stajan. Through 10 games at the time, he had been one of Calgary's most consistent forwards. Now through 12 games, that storyline has not changed.

Drafted 57th overall by Toronto in 2002, there are forwards drafted ahead of him that have been more prolific offensively -- guys like Alexander Semin, Chris Higgins, Joffrey Lupul and Jarret Stoll -- but Stajan has outlasted all of them when it comes to longevity.

"There's a reason why guys stick around for 800-900 games in this league and it's not an easy thing to do," said Giordano last Saturday. "He's a very, very valuable piece in this room."

Turning 33 in December, his 866 career games is over 200 more than the team's other three centers combined.

With the game on the line and with Mikael Backlund having just come off the ice, the team did not turn to either of its other two higher profile centers -- Sean Monahan, the guy making over $6 million per season, or the talented Sam Bennett, the organization's highest draft pick, they turned to the wily veteran.

"He adds to our culture," says head coach Glen Gulutzan. "He's one of our leaders in that locker room. I knew that coming in. and I've really been happy with his play and he's been an inspired player right now. He's done a lot of good things for us."

Those "good things" as witnessed by those watching the game on Thursday, are often things that don't show up on the game sheet. One face-off win in an otherwise ordinary 6-5 night at the dot for Stajan was all that final 22.8 seconds of furious defending boiled down to statistically. 

But make no mistake, the scrap he showed that shift, continually disrupting passes or shots, was crucial to the team securing an important win.

Reliable Veteran

"Staj is one of those veteran guys, good presence in the locker room, real even keel, good guys to talk to, who has been around the league for a long time and it helps the younger players," says Gulutzan.

Giordano said the players apprenticing under him could learn a lot just by observing.

"Our young guys can take a lot from his positioning out there. If you watch him play, especially deep in the D zone, he's never in a rush and that's the way to play center in the D zone and he always seems to find those right spots."

Giordano says some guys value goes well beyond their stat line. 

"People get lost in the numbers," says Giordano. "Sometimes when you look at numbers, you have to look at situations that guys are in. If guys aren't playing power play and stuff like that, their role is different.

"It's like that with a lot of players. Brouw to a certain extent, you could say the same thing. He's not going to score you 40-50 goals but he's just as valuable as those guys because of what else he brings. Staj is one of those guys. He's a guy that has moved up and down the line-up for his full time here and he's done well in any situation. There's a lot of value in players like that and having a good leader."

Well, there is one number that stands out for Stajan. It is the number one, as in only one even-strength goal has been scored against him this season. That's mighty impressive. That's in a dozen games and having played the equivalent ice time of over two full games at even-strength -- 122:06 to be exact.

If you are one to scoff at a goal-based metric like plus-minus, no problem, shot-based advanced stats tell a similar story. In SAT% Close (aka Corsi Close, aka the ratio of attempted shots for versus attempted shots against while that player is on the ice and the game is within a goal), his 57.34 is second among Flames regulars behind only Micheal Ferland (57.86). Plus it should be noted that over 75 percent of Stajan's zone starts (aka when he's on the ice for a face-off) have come in the defensive zone, which naturally adds a layer of difficulty.

Always There to Lend an Ear

Two-and-a-half months younger than Giordano, part of Stajan's value is as a sounding board for his fellow Ontarian. The Flames captain says he regularly taps into him when there's something he's mulling over.

"When there's an off-ice issue, an on-ice issue, he's always one of the first guys I go to talk to about it," says Giordano. "He's always got good advice."

As a young player with the Leafs, Stajan had the benefit of having lots of veterans around him. He says that helped a lot.

"I was fortunate as a young guy to be surrounded by a lot of leaders in this game and I made sure I watched them. because you learn so much from them," Stajan says. "My first year, I roomed with (Joe) Nieuwendyk, (Gary) Roberts was on the team, Mats Sundin was always the same person, whether you won three in a row or lost three in a row. Same work every day."

It's a lead-by-example type of approach he now brings to the Saddledome every day.

"I try to tell the young guys, it's all experience. Life's an experience. Whether it's tough times or good times, you've got to take it all in because nothing is easy going in life in general. Accept what's going on and do everything you can to make things better and be a better player and a better person," says Stajan. "That's the approach I've always tried to have and I've tried to help our young guys with."

Reliable Veteran

Singled out the day Gulutzan was introduced as head coach as a veteran that would play an important role on a young team, true to his words, there he was, leaning on his oldest forward late in the game on Thursday.

"It's been refreshing for everybody. You come to the rink, I haven't changed at all, I'm the same person. But obviously the coach has relied a lot more on a guy like myself and Deryk Engelland and some of the other veterans," says Stajan. 

"He's counting on the veterans to set a precedent in the way the dressing room needs to be and I think that's the way it's got to be. We have to hold each other accountable in the dressing room and we've got to build this room up the way we want it to be."

Meanwhile, Stajan along with Backlund and Frolik, have been among the most consistent players all year.

"Our fourth line or whatever you want to call him, they've been solid," says Giordano. "Generating a lot of chances too for us. Their job is to get out there and you want them to have good energy shifts and be good defensively. They've done that and they've generated a lot on the offensive side of the puck as well."

Setting Up Linemates for Success

Playing with Stajan has become one of those things that looks great on the resume.

Alex Chiasson spent time there and got moved up. Tkachuk spent a couple games on the fourth line and is now thriving with Backlund and Frolik. Same goes for Ferland, who has leveraged some nice chemistry with Stajan to be used in other situations.

"That's the running joke in the room. Every time someone is on my line for a little bit and the gets bumped up in the line-up, I'm like, 'You just needed a little seasoning with me, eh?'," Stajan says with a chuckle.

One could argue that Lance Bouma, since dropping to the fourth line, has also played his best hockey.

"But I take pride in that. That's part of my role. You need four lines and at times guys have to simplify their game and whether that's coming down to play with me, I don't change the way I play. Give the kids credit for being able to adjust to where they're playing in the line-up."

Gulutzan says it's versatility that is invaluable.

"The thing with Staj is he's a smart player. He can make plays. Even guys like (Chiasson) that have a little offence to them too. They can thrive there because he's a smart player and he's playing hard and not only is he playing good defensively, he's contributing offensively and making some plays for those guys."

Speaking of contributions, don't forget to add in clutch at the face-off dot too, and tenacious. Right, Little Joe?

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  1. Great read Darren. Stajan IMO has been the most consistent Flame so far this season. Honorable mention to Backlund, Frolik, and Engelland

    1. Thank you. Stajan and Engelland, who I just wrote about on the weekend, are certainly the two unsung heroes of this season. Unfortunately, unsung heroes cannot lead a team to victories, they can only lead a team to more victories. The core of this team needs to step up.