For brilliant right wing Jarome Iginla, the center cannot hold. Since the Flames traded a developing Marc Savard in 2002, Iginla has run through a conga line of centers who would not fit anyone's definition of a No. 1 for a contending team. Craig Conroy, Steven Reinprecht, Daymond Langkow, Matthew Lombardi, Olli Jokinen ... all had the occasional moments of hockey magic with Iginla—he won Rocket Richard trophies in 2001--02 and '03--04, after all—but the past seven years under G.M. Darryl Sutter have seemed less like line juggling than serial dating for a winger who deserves better.
The latest candidate is Matt Stajan. Getting a jump on the 17-day moratorium on trades during the Olympics, Sutter continued the merry roundelay in the middle by acquiring Stajan from the Maple Leafs on Jan. 31 as part of a package for erstwhile All-Star defenseman Dion Phaneuf, and then wheeling Jokinen to the Rangers. The trades were designed to shake up a team that had bumbled through a recent nine-game losing streak, but they also underscored Sutter's inability to find a suitable complement to his franchise player.
Stajan's stint as Iginla's playmate might be short—Stajan can become an unrestricted free agent on July 1—but the moderately deft centerman is a marked change from Jokinen. At least Stajan, 26, who has not had more than 55 points in a season or been obliged to compete regularly against top defensive pairs and checking lines, looks to make plays compared with the shoot-first Jokinen. "I think it'll work well [with Stajan]," says Iginla. "He has good vision and that creative side. He wants to know where you are."
Some responsibility for the failed chemistry experiments must fall on Iginla, 32, who had an NHL-high 371 goals over the past decade and through Sunday had 24 in 59 matches this season. The depth of his game doesn't make him the easiest of standout wingers with whom to play. Certainly he has an industrial-strength shot from the face-off circles and is a bull near the crease, able to fight through checks to bury rebounds. But while he fancies himself a Brett Hull--style disappear-and-reappear-in-the-seam shooter who can one-time a pass, he also lugs the puck more than some elite wingers. "When Jarome has to start carrying the puck up ice," says Craig Button, Sutter's predecessor as Flames G.M., "he's probably not going to be in a position to be shooting it."
Calgary is walking a playoff tightrope. The Flames dropped from fourth to ninth in the Western Conference during their nine-game skid. In seventh place at week's end, they had won two of four since Stajan arrived, but Iginla had yet to score. Conroy, 38, who had a modest career-best 48 assists while primarily centering Iginla in 2001--02, says there's no need to start worrying yet. "[Jarome] finds a way to be productive," he says. "He almost always has two guys within a stick-length of him, but he gets it done."
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