Matt Stajan is having a career year playing on a line with Phil Kessel.
Stajan's emergence comes at an interesting time. As a pending UFA in a contract year one has to wonder if the Leafs can afford to keep him or, given his chemistry with Kessel, can they afford to let him go?
One unintended consequence of landing Kessel could very well be Stajan getting priced out of the Leafs' plans.
Before Kessel was healthy enough to join the Leafs, Stajan was putting up points at an 0.58 per game (ppg) rate. Good for a 48 point season. Since being given the plumb assignment of centering Kessel, his production has nearly doubled to a very impressive 0.98 ppg. Pairing up with Kessel has put Stajan on pace for 65 points with career highs in both goals and assists.
I have no idea what transpires between players, agents and GMs, but with Stajan on pace for 65 points this year, all signs point to a hefty raise. Factor in a thin crop of UFA centres – demand exceeding supply – and it's a safe bet that Stajan will be Oprah rich.
In order to get an idea of the compensation Stajan might be in line for, I took a look at the types of contracts signed by Stajan's peers in 2009, that is unrestricted free agent forwards, in their 20s, that scored in the 50 to 65 point band. Here's a quick look at Stajan's comparables:
Nik Antropov, career high 59 points – signed a $4M/year deal in ATL
Johan Franzen, career high 59 points – signed a $3.95M/year deal in DET
Travis Zajac, career high 62 points - signed a $3.88M/year deal in NJ
Tumomo Ruutu, career high 54 points - signed a $3.8M/year deal in CAR
Ryan Clowe, career high 52 points – signed a $3.5M/year deal in SJ.
Stajan has already outpointed Ruutu and Clowe and this season he will likely outpoint the totals put up by Antropov, Zajac and Franzen in their contract years.
Given the comparables, don't be surprised to see Stajan looking for a contract in the $3.5M+/year range this summer.
Who’s Driving the Bus?
If Kessel is generating the bulk of Stajan’s points (and all signs point to this being so: Stajan’s ppg nearly doubled since joining Kessel and he has countless assists from down near his own goal line) two questions immediately come to mind:
- Can Stajan be replaced at a cheaper rate than the expected $3.5M+/year?
- Should the Leafs commit salary and term to a player that isn’t generating the stats he's being rewarded for?
In terms of replacement value, it’s not just about keeping salary dollars for UFAs this summer. A potential Stajan deal is about cap dollars, cap space and flexibility for the life of the contract. $3.5 to $4M may not seem like a heavy cap hit to carry, but how many Leaf fans would love to see Finger ($3.5M) and Blake ($4M) moved?
As Eliotte Friedman noted in his most recent 30 Thoughts:
One GM told me that if you're going to sign a player to a long-term, big-money deal, he'd better be three things: critical to your success, consistently healthy and, most importantly, extremely self-motivated.As much as I'm eating crow over the Kessel deal (I didn’t, and still don't, like the deal even though Kessel has looked fantastic for the Leafs) Kessel remains a rather soft player. Boston has effectively neutralized him in two games by playing smothering, tough hockey. I fully expect that this style would be SOP if the Leafs ever make the post-season.
In light of this, there are a few downsides to keeping Stajan as the Leafs #1 centre:
- Stajan is not the guy you run 20+ minutes a night against tough competition. He’s not going to help shut-down the bigger pivots in the east;
- On the other side of the puck, he’s not going to fight through smothering, tough, defence to generate points;
- With Grabovski already signed as the #2 centre, can the Leafs succeed over the long-term, and in the post-season, with softer players centering the top two lines?
- To Friedman's point, is Stajan the right type of player to build around or do the Leafs need to focus what assets they have – salary, term, the trading of spare parts and pending UFAs – to acquire a more physical or grittier player than can make some room for Kessel?
In terms of replacement value, there are always going to be bona fide NHL players looking for a short-term deal to stay in the game. Afinogenov signed for $800k, Moore for $1.1M. Peverley got picked off waivers. I think all 3 would put up Stajanesque numbers if given prime minutes with Kessel.
If there are other centres available who can produce alongside Kessel for less than $3.5M/year, trade Stajan for whatever you can get.
If no other viable options are available, or if you believe Stajan is a key part of the medium term success of the team, get Stajan’s name on a contract.
If I were GM
My tendency would be to let Kessel continue to inflate Stajan's stats for the rest of the season to see what the return for Stajan is at the trade deadline.
If the price is right, I'd move Stajan.
I'd also consider taking a page out of the St. Louis Blues playbook and move Stajan for picks at the deadline and look at re-signing him come July 1.
If Stajan is willing to take a home town discount (less than $3M/year or a very short term deal) I'd get his name on a contract.
The cap makes the NHL an efficiency contest. Elite teams lock-up their superstars and round out the rosters with players who are outperforming their contracts. Personally, I don't think Stajan fits either of these categories.
With 16 pending UFAs and RFAs on the Leafs extended roster and just 59 days between the January 1st opening of contract renegotiations (CBA 50.5 F iv) and the March 3trade deadline it's going to be an interesting few months for Burke and the Leafs.
Stajan may be the most intriguing challenge Burke has.