Stastny leaves indelible mark during short time with Jets

Paul Stastny won’t go down as one of the all-time Winnipeg Jets greats, but the 35-year-old forward, who will skate in his 1,000th career game on Tuesday night at Bell MTS Place, should be celebrated as one of the most impactful players we’ve ever seen around here.

Not so much for his on-ice contributions, which were more prominent during his prime years in Colorado and St. Louis. Stastny has only suited up 74 times for Winnipeg, and his 42 regular-season points put him 70th on the franchise list, just one behind Lubos Bartecko and one ahead of current linemate Mason Appleton. Not exactly retire-the-number and raise-a-banner stuff.

No, it’s more about what Stastny represents, the confidence and clout he brought to a club that desperately needed a boost — specifically when he first arrived in February 2018 on a deadline-day deal that stunned the hockey world.

Was that really the small-market Jets, the organization that high-profile free agents and big stars with contract control supposedly wanted to avoid like the plague, landing a true difference-maker? The same team that had never won a playoff series, let alone a single game, in franchise history?

Paul Stastny will play in his 1,000th career game on Tuesday. (Jason Franson / The Canadian Press files)

Paul Stastny will play in his 1,000th career game on Tuesday. (Jason Franson / The Canadian Press files)

You bet your blockbuster was.

Stastny’s acquisition set a loud and clear message to the rest of the league: For the first time since re-locating from Atlanta, Winnipeg was a legitimate contender. And Stastny, who had to waive his no-trade clause from St. Louis, was all-in.

The Jets gave it their best shot, going all the way to the Western Conference Final and even taking the first game over Vegas, leaving them just 180 successful minutes away from the Stanley Cup Final. Stastny, with six goals and nine assists in 17 games, was a key contributor. Of course, we know how that story turned out, as Marc-Andre Fleury took over and stole the show, Winnipeg ran out of gas and the magical run came to a painful end.

Still, there’s no mistaking what a major event that was and the role Stastny played, which I asked him about during a Zoom call Tuesday afternoon.

“Too many guys get caught up in trying to be comfortable where they are, where they know. They’re scared of change. And I get that. But sometimes, when you go to a new team, it kind of brings new life to you and a lot of good things come out of it. When that happened, I mean that was a special year. I still look back on what could have been but it just shows you how hard it is to win,” said Stastny, who will be an unrestricted free agent this summer.

Stastny twice waived his no-trade clause to play in Winnipeg. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)

Stastny twice waived his no-trade clause to play in Winnipeg. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)

“What was three months felt like three years, we enjoyed it so much. It just speaks a volume to the city of Winnipeg, the people of Winnipeg, the organization, the players, how welcoming everyone is, and how tight-knit of a community it is around here.”

Stastny left that summer, with the salary cap-strapped Jets unable to come anywhere close to the three-year, $19.5 million deal offered by those same Golden Knights. I’ll never begrudge anyone chasing a better deal, especially when careers are relatively short. In hindsight, that would have been a massive overpay by Winnipeg for a player of his age already in decline. Spending those resources elsewhere, such as locking up young core pieces such as Kyle Connor and Josh Morrissey, was the more prudent move.

But a career-ending injury to Bryan Little and a seemingly never-ending search for a second-line centre led Stastny and the Jets back to each other again this past off-season. Once again, he waived the no-trade clause.

Whether they can re-capture any of that post-season magic remains to be seen. Stastny, three years older and definitely a step or two slower, isn’t the same player he was, although he can still be effective in smaller doses. He is seventh on the team in scoring, with 13 goals and 16 assists while primarily playing a second or third-line role.

The bigger concern is the team itself, which isn’t exactly inspiring much confidence right now. Going into Stastny’s milestone game Tuesday night, they were spiralling out of control with nine regulation losses in their past 10 games. A first-round playoff meeting with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl seems destined to end in disaster for the Jets.

Paul Stastny has 13 goals and 16 assists this season. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)

Paul Stastny has 13 goals and 16 assists this season. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)

But that’s where Stastny’s presence has the potential to pay off once again. If ever the club needed a calming voice and a steadying hand, it’s now. The pressure will only increase when the stakes are raised starting next week. And you could do a lot worse than having someone with his wealth of experience around.

Stastny doesn’t wear a letter on his sweater, but he’s an important part of the leadership group and the closest thing you’ll see to a player-coach in the modern game. Just look at his candid comments a couple weeks ago, where he came out following a lopsided loss to the Oilers and confessed that his team had been “cheating the game” even when they were winning, which led to some bad habits.

That kind of honesty was both welcome and necessary, and led to several days of introspection by coach Paul Maurice and other players. Even though the wins haven’t followed — the product of some offensive woes they hope might be cured with some better puck luck and the return of injured forward Nikolaj Ehlers — the team has been better in their own end of the ice in recent games.

Stastmy celebrates 1,000 games

“I think it just means you’ve done a pretty good job your whole career, been a consistent player. It’s just an honour to be able to play the game this long, and to keep having fun and enjoy it. Call it a job, but from four or five years old to me it’s always been what I love to do, and I still love to do it. So the love’s still in the game and that’s the most important thing for me.”

— Stastny

“I think it just means you’ve done a pretty good job your whole career, been a consistent player. It’s just an honour to be able to play the game this long, and to keep having fun and enjoy it. Call it a job, but from four or five years old to me it’s always been what I love to do, and I still love to do it. So the love’s still in the game and that’s the most important thing for me.” 

— Stastny

“If you want to talk hockey to a guy you go talk to Paul Stastny. He’s got great experience, a great view of the game, a great love of the game. His entire life would have been in some ways in the NHL. His dad’s a player there, he’s around the NHL room. He’s spent his entire life as a really important player on every team that he’s played. He’s a great encyclopedia of the game. What’s happening now, what it was like 10, 20 years ago. If you like talking hockey, Stas is a great guy to have a coffee with.”

— Jets coach Paul Maurice

“Something like today to me more is just about an opportunity to thank the people who got me here, whether it’s my parents or my brothers and sisters, they’re always my biggest supporters and always have my back and always want the best for me. They get a lot of love internally, quietly. I’m not a guy who likes the public limelight. But it’s times like these I can thank them for everything they’ve done and everything they still do for me.”

— Stastny

“Just an amazing pro and battles every game. Just kind of one of those guys that does everything right every single night and that’s why he’s not only lasted as long as he has but had the type of success he’s had in the NHL. So it’s been just unreal to be his teammate and certainly a great friend as well.

— Jets captain Blake Wheeler

“It’s funny you say that about Taco Bell because I was thinking about that last night with my wife. The problem is that with everything being shut here, during the week Taco Bell isn’t open too late. So (Tuesday’s) game might be over, but Taco Bell might be closed at 10 o’clock. We might have to skip on that one but, maybe (Wednesday) for dinner my wife and I will get it. It’s just something we have a love for. As we’ve gotten older, we still do it a couple of times a year — whether it was when we were just dinner or after our wedding night, it’s always been a part of us. You’ve got to keep the history going.”

— Stastny

“He’s such a great person. He’s very easy to talk to. Speaks on all subjects. Just such a great teammate, knows the game well, hockey sense is off the charts. On the ice, he almost plays that same way. He’s a great passer, so smart, always in the right spots.”

— Jets forward Kyle Connor

“Everyone asks me how I lost my teeth originally. It was in 7th grade, I think we were playing baseball outside and it was kind of like misting. We went back inside. This was like during gym class. And then we went back outside, because it wasn’t raining hard enough but it was still a little slick. Me and my buddy were kind of standing behind home plate, it was like softball kind of thing, and all of a sudden another kid, I don’t want to say his name, he was about 20 or 30 feet away and took a swing and it just slipped out of his hands. Me and my good buddies were basically shoulder to shoulder and I took the full barrel of the bat. Like right in the mouth. I remember dropping down and I found the little piece of tooth. I thought I was going to be a hero and bring it back to the dentist and say ‘Look, can you put this back in?’ I really had no idea that I probably knocked part or almost all of eight front teeth. From that day forward I think my mouth just became a magnet. I think some guys get hit in the nose a lot, some guys get hit in the chin. It’s kind of like Murphy’s Law. It seems to me every time I get hit somewhere it’s always in the mouth. It almost makes sense that I don’t have the teeth in for 1,000 games because, whatever, 800 or 900 games of my career have been missing teeth.

— Stastny

“It’s pretty amazing to be a part of that, to be a part of his 1,000th game. He’s had a pretty amazing career. He’s a big part of this team so it’s definitely a huge thing for him and we’re happy for him and excited to be a part of it.”

— Jets forward Mark Scheifele

I think when you’re younger, you’re always looking to the future, kind of “I want to do this and do this and do this.” And then you realize how life doesn’t work that way. There’s a lot of unpredictability. There’s a lot of curveballs, a lot of curves in the road. You never know where you’re going to end up being so you kind of enjoy where you are, you enjoy the moment. Everyone does it, right? Everyone does it, everyone gets too caught up in looking, even if it’s two weeks down the road, or three months down the road, or three years down the road. I don’t want to do that, especially now that I’m kind of towards the end of my career. Yeah, I could look at what’s next, but at the same time, if I’m having fun, I’m enjoying this, and my family’s enjoying it as well, then to me it’s just keep a smile out there, enjoy the game, and do it as long as I have a love for the game. Once that love disappears or once I can’t keep up, once that motivation’s not there, then I’ll look ahead to see what’s next but, for now, I’m just enjoying the ride for what it is.

— Stastny

Stastny is a master communicator and storyteller, as was evident by the nearly 30 minutes he spent on Tuesday talking about his career and what it means to become just the 349th player in NHL history to play at least 1,000 games.

There were great tales about his famous hockey family, including his Hall of Fame father, Peter, older brother Yan and uncles Anton and Marian who all played in the NHL. Of his affinity for Taco Bell — Stastny bemoaned the fact his favourite celebratory meal would likely have to wait until Wednesday since they’d all have been closed following Tuesday night’s game. And about how his mouth has become a “magnet” for injury dating back to an accidental childhood face-off with a baseball bat.

It was a reminder Stastny is a terrific ambassador for the game. Although his time here in Winnipeg will end up being relatively brief in the big picture, there’s no doubt he will leave an important legacy behind.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

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