SAN JOSE, CA -- Brian Burke let Matt Stajan go once. He wasn’t about to again.
After sending him to the Calgary Flames as part of the deal that sent Dion Phaneuf to the Toronto Maple Leafs four years ago, Burke ensured four more years of Stajan by signing the potential unrestricted free agent to a $12.5 million contract on Monday.
“I thought Matt was a good player in Toronto,” the Flames’ president of hockey operations said via phone during the first intermission of Calgary’s 3-2 loss in San Jose. “The only reason we traded him was that Darryl Sutter insisted that he be in the deal for Dion Phaneuf. That’s the only reason I traded him. I told him that when I came here.
“But he’s a far better hockey player now than he was then. He’s just more alert, his positional play is stronger, he goes where he’s supposed to go without hesitation, his reaction time is much less, which is typical as players get older, but his work ethic has been consistent since he turned pro. His hockey sense has finely developed.
“He does a lot of things well and if our team performance were better, that would be reflective with higher numbers, too.”
Critics of Stajan will point to just that -- production -- as a strike against the 30-year-old pivot
In 42 games this season, Stajan has seven goals and 17 points. He’s yet to hit double digits in goals in a single season while in Calgary and has 29 goals and 105 points in 249 career contests with the Flames.
The contributions go beyond the scoresheet, Burke reasoned.
“People may point out his point production isn’t great but we’re not a team that scores a lot of goals,” he said. “His contributions come in many other ways -- faceoffs, forechecking, penalty kill. He just does a lot of things well.”
But the biggest Stajan’s done well is adapt.
On a team that has rapidly changed direction over the course of the past 365 days, Stajan has quickly taken to Calgary’s rebuilding approach, serving as a teacher and mentor to the Flames’ next wave of young talent flooding the organization, including rookie centres Sean Monahan and Joe Colborne.
“He’s a leader on our team and he’s a disciple in terms of our system, in terms of training camp, how hard we’ve worked and just buying into the system to work with these younger players,” Burke said. “He’s been terrific for us.”
And in that sense, Burke declared Stajan as invaluable.
“It’s critical,” he said. “We have to change the culture here so when you get a guy who’s buying into the new culture, buying into what the coach is teaching and then passing that along and re-enforcing it, encouraging it with the younger players, those are critical things.
“I think Matt’s an important player for our hockey team and I’m glad he’s under contract now. I think it’s an important day for us.”
Stajan is just one piece to the puzzle Burke’s assembling, too, serving as the first of a group of nine potential unrestricted free agents to sign on for another spin in Calgary.
Not all will be welcomed back next September, meaning there are plenty of personnel decisions awaiting Burke before the NHL’s trade deadline on March 5th.
The process is already well underway.
“Yes, we have begun negotiations,” he said. “I don’t do that through the newspaper, but we have started speaking with other players as well.”
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