WINNIPEG - The first thing that popped out of Nate Schmidt’s mouth when asked to describe a former teammate was something you don’t usually hear in hockey circles.
It won’t be found in any scouting reports either.
But as the Vancouver Canucks defenceman continued along with his stream of consciousness regarding Paul Stastny, you knew exactly what he was trying to say and where he was coming from.
“He’s a unicorn,” Schmidt said during a recent telephone interview. “He’s such a well-rounded person, a well-rounded hockey player. It fascinates me how he’s been doing it for so long. Just the way Paul acts and treats people, he can go into any type of circle in hockey. He’s a really smart guy, he’s well educated. He can bounce around from guy to guy on the team and always have something in common with somebody and that he can chat with and make them feel comfortable and just be able to connect with.
“We chat about just about anything. From the stock market to hockey to college hockey to the NCAA basketball tournament to foreign policy. The whole nine yards. He can flow with any conversation. He’s not just going to sit there and be a bump on a log. It’s contagious being around him. You’re just thirsty for something more when he’s around.”
As Stastny returns to the Winnipeg Jets for a second stint, he is being counted on to fill a number of important roles as the first on-ice session of training camp occurs on Monday.
In addition to holding down the second-line centre job, Stastny should also provide a boost to both the power play and penalty killing units.
Stastny will also have an impact in a place that won’t always show up in a traditional boxscore.
“He’s a very intelligent hockey player, he’s competitive and he’s a leader. He’s one of the best penalty killers in the NHL and he anticipates the play so well,” said former Golden Knights head coach Gerard Gallant. “He plays at both ends and he’s really good with young players. You could call him another coach if you wanted to.
“He’s a team-guy first, he prepares well and he comes ready to play every day. He’s a true pro and he’s always trying to get better.”
Stastny comes by that quality honestly.
As someone who broke into the NHL as a 20-year-old rookie on a Colorado Avalanche team that was led by future Hall of Famer Joe Sakic, Stastny was a benefactor of a number of veterans showing him the ropes as he found his footing.
“There were a lot of guys that played with my dad (Peter) and were now playing with me -- they would joke around and tell me different stories,” Stastny said. “For me, I’ve always been a quiet personality. I like to sit there and watch and see what a lot of different guys do and try to soak it all in. When you’re around the best players, you always want to see how they work on their craft. For Joe, he was 37 and that year he put up 100 points. But if you would have seen the way he carried himself, he was very even-keel. He had a fun personality that a lot of people in the media maybe don’t see. He’s the best.
“When Joe came into the league, my dad was a veteran and he kind of helped him a little bit. Then everything kind of came full circle a little bit. That was cool to see. If I was struggling or doing good things, there were always little things he would say to keep me on my game or keep me focused -- and not get too carried away ever, whether it was the regular season or the playoffs. It was fun playing with him, we played a lot on the power play together and I just learned so much.”
Sakic’s willingness to engage in those conversations was something Stastny appreciated.
“I would be picking his brain and he would give me the time of day,” Stastny said. “Sometimes you have older guys that just want to be at the rink and then just get out of there. (Sakic) was always willing to help me out and help (Wojtek) Wolski out and make it easier for us.”
As a rookie, Stastny immediately impressed his teammates with his understanding and appreciation for the history of the game that went along with his respect for it.
“He was very mature and you could tell that (he) grew up around the game. He really had zero ego. Nothing really seemed to phase him and no stage was too big for him,” said Minnesota Wild assistant coach Andrew Brunette, who was a teammate of Stastny’s for two seasons. “He was very cerebral and very curious. He was always asking questions and you could see he was always thinking of certain situations. He was always gathering information and he was like a sponge for how things work. You always want to play with guys who are unselfish and can think the game, but don’t cheat the game and do the right things -- and that’s Paul.
“He had that sort of contagious joy for the game and love of life. He’s the kind of guy you wanted to be around all the time.”
Current Wisconsin Badgers men’s hockey head coach Tony Granato had watched Stastny play in college for the University of Denver Pioneers and was thrilled when the Avalanche chose him in the second round, 44th overall.
“I guess there was a little bit of a knock on his skating at that time, but I don’t see it. I just see him getting to the place where he needed to be to make every play in every situation,” said Granato, who was an assistant coach with the Avalanche when Stastny arrived on the scene and was later promoted to head coach. “He was way ahead of his years, as far as a young player being a guy you thought was a veteran player who had all the experience to fall back on. The hockey IQ part of it was elite. Right from Day 1.
“When you coach him, you would tell him something one time and that was it. He applied it forever. He was a learner. He saw something and he figured out how to use it to his advantage or to apply it in a way that it would help.”
During the summer of 2014, Stastny was an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career.
After spending a decade in Denver (eight seasons with the Avalanche and another two at the University of Denver), Stastny signed as a free agent with the St. Louis Blues.
“He was a perfect fit for us because he could play up and down your lineup, and he can create a matchup advantage for you because he can play against the other team’s best players and he doesn’t miss a beat,” said former Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock. “He always wants to know why -- and you better be prepared to give him a good answer. He asked a lot of good questions. He’s a very analytical player. He analyzes things at a very, very deep level.
“He’s a guy that always saw the next play. He was really focused on the cause and effect of what would happen if we did certain things. Quite frankly, that was very helpful to us as coaches because you would have to explain it in detail so that it was clear for everybody and there were no assumptions. He didn’t challenge things emotionally, he challenged things intellectually. If you’re looking to take the next step as an organization, you need players that are zero maintenance and Paul is zero maintenance. He motivates himself and he keeps his line engaged.”
When asked where that genuine curiosity comes from, Stastny chuckled before launching into the explanation.
“I don’t know. I’ve always been a why person,” he said. “Whether it’s hockey or the way people coach or talking to other people that do different things, I’m just curious. If I’m going to do something, whether it’s on the ice, with training or with rehabbing an injury, I want to know why and I want to understand where everything came (from).
“Too many people I know just kind of lollygag through life and don’t learn from it. By asking why all the time, you learn from your mistakes and you learn from history. You know if that situation happens again, you know how to get out of it or to work around it. That’s one of the personality traits I get from my dad. We’re curious people about a lot of different things. I love sports, I love politics, I love finance. There are so many things that I like. It keeps my mind fresh instead of being so focused on one thing all the time.”
The last time Stastny showed up in Winnipeg was at the trade deadline in 2018, when he agreed to waive his no-movement clause and leave the Blues.
Once the playoffs arrived, Stastny made his biggest impact -- including a Game 7 performance against the Nashville Predators that featured two goals and an assist as the Jets chased Pekka Rinne in the first period and advanced to the Western Conference final for the first time in franchise history.
Although he ended up signing with the Golden Knights as a free agent that summer, Stastny had a modified no-trade clause in his three-year contract, but the Jets were not one of the teams on that list.
So when the Golden Knights were clearing out cap room to take a run at prized free agent Alex Pietrangelo, Stastny was traded back to Winnipeg.
Now it’s Stastny’s own career which has come full circle.
He’s the aging, yet productive centre who is passing on wisdom while still passionately searching for solutions to keep his game chugging along at a high level.
At a time when several young players on the roster might prefer a change of scenery, Stastny is embracing this reunion and can’t wait to see where it takes him.
“Going to Winnipeg, being on that team and playing with certain players kind of rejuvenated my career. It gave me more life and some pep in my step. The love for the game reappeared and everything came back to me. Unfortunately we didn’t win it all, but that was one of the decisions in my career that I am so happy that I made,” Stastny said, referring to the original deal in 2018. “It’s weird how it works. When there were rumblings (about him being on the trade block in the summer), my wife told me she’s always had a feeling we would go back.
“When I left Winnipeg, we tried making it work. We really wanted to stay. All of a sudden, things have a way of working out. We’re really excited to see what the future holds.”
Getting Stastny back was welcome news for the guys he’s played with before.
“I think he’s just a steady, smart hockey player and you can’t have too many of those,” Jets forward Andrew Copp said in a recent Zoom call. “I’ve got a lot of respect for his game. I’ve got a lot of respect for what he does off the ice. I’ve got a lot of respect for just the person he is.
“He’ll provide a lot of that leadership and a lot of that stability in our room, which is always important. And I don’t know if I can’t point to one particular spot he helped. He obviously solidified us down the middle, on that power play, as we went through that playoff run. But if he can have that same impact, I think it’ll be huge for our team.”
It’s natural to wonder if Stastny can get back to the level he was at in 2018.
After all, he turned 35 last month and has accumulated plenty of hard miles during his 945 regular season games and 97 Stanley Cup playoff games over 14 seasons.
But bet against Stastny at your own peril. He’s faced questions about the flaws in his game long before he arrived in the NHL.
“People say he can’t really skate that well, but it doesn’t seem to matter. He’s just so smart. He doesn’t seem to shoot that hard, but again it doesn’t seem to matter, he still scores and is in the right position to score,” Schmidt said. “There are things about him and his game, he just has so many different attributes to him. One doesn’t always have to be there. He’s got two or three others to help pick up the slack and be the defining part in the game. That’s so important to have in today’s game.”
The Jets believe they’ve found the long-range solution for the second-line centre job in drafting Cole Perfetti 10th overall in the 2020 NHL Draft.
That doesn’t necessarily prevent Stastny from extending his career with the Jets beyond this shortened season. But Stastny will worry about that when the time is right.
After advancing to the Western Conference Final on three separate occasions (2016, 2018 and 2020), he’s got a far more important goal on his mind than securing his next contract.
“Winning takes care of everything,” Stastny said. “When you’re winning, you don’t worry about the individual stuff. If you look at any team that wins, all of those individuals have their best year. All of those guys end up getting contracts.
“As you get older and if you play for other teams and talk to other guys, you realize how lucky some guys are to be in situations they are. Sometimes, you think the grass is greener on the other side, but it’s not. When you’re put in a position to succeed, you have to take advantage of it because it’s crazy how fast things change. You just don’t know what is going to happen next.”