Finding Jaromir Jagr's place among the NHL's greats no easy task

0:42 | NHL
Jaromir Jagr continues to defy Father Time
Friday December 23rd, 2016

It’s not often you can say that someone’s formidable backside possesses attributes that are Hall of Fame worthy, but what one can say about Jaromir Jagr, who passed Mark Messier as the second leading scorer in NHL history on Thursday, is not what one can say about many other players. 

That Jagr rump, and his impeccable body control, has allowed him to possess the puck at a rarefied level going back to his rookie season as an eighteen-year-old on the utterly stacked 1990-91 Pittsburgh Penguins. That team would win the Cup and repeated the next year, and should have made it a three-peat the year after, were it not for a pesky New York Islanders squad. 

Jagr had yet to emerge as the mega-star he would become, for these were the Pens of Super Mario Lemieux, that is, a player Jagr long ago passed in the career scoring ranks. 

No one is ever going to argue who the four best players in league history are. If you watch so much as three games a year, you know that the tetralogy comes down to Gretzky, Orr, Howe, Lemieux. Zero argument.

But what about slots five through ten? Could the now 44-year-old ‘Jags’ slip in there? We are talking—and this is bloody big—a guy who is about to trail only the Great One, Wayne Gretzky, in points. Granted, by like a thousand points, but you almost have to count Gretzky as a force unto himself, not governed by the normal rules of sports or even math. He’s Gretzky.

NHL
Jaromir Jagr passes Mark Messier for No. 2 in all-time NHL scoring

But how many careers have been more distinctive than Jagr’s? Or, really, harder to process, as to its real value?

Those first two seasons featured the only Cups Jagr has won. And that’s without him being the central guy, or even really close to it. 

His peak came later in that decade of the 1990s. He won the Art Ross in 1994-95, but that was a little confusing, given that it was the lockout season, and 70 points just doesn’t really jump out at you as a number. He finished second in Hart trophy voting, and would cop the award a few seasons later in 1998-99 for his lone MVP award, though you always thought of him as in the mix. (And he does have three Pearson awards, which goes out to the league’s top performer as judged by the players.)

This was when Jagr might have been the best player on the planet. Briefly. In his prime decade, you have to think that Gretzky was better, ditto Lemieux, Bourque, Yzerman was close, Roy was more impactful. But there is this thing about Jagr—the dude just keeps going. 
    
He recorded his second 50-plus goal season in 2000-01, then left the Penguins and entered the journeyman phase, which he’s never really left, no matter how awesome he has been. 

Jagr roams, much as he does on the half wall, moving towards the point, towards the corner, the point again, then the corner, shielding the puck with that aforesaid hind portion, until a player breaks free, Jagr hits him tape-to-tape, and on goes the red light.

In Washington for a couple seasons he was barely a point-a-game player. Then he took up residence with the Rangers in Madison Square Garden, and exploded at age thirty-three for 54 goals in 2005-06.

A couple more Rangers seasons followed—with a decline each year—and then it was on to a litany of stops: the KHL in Russia for three seasons, Philly, Boston—where he returned to the Cup finals an insane twenty-one years after his last appearance—New Jersey, and Florida, where he still sticks. 

Odd things have happened: Alexander Ovechkin lit him up at the Olympics during his Russian sojourn such that you thought this was the last you’d ever see of Jagr. There was a woman who slept with him and tried to blackmail for money, or else she’s go public, to which Jags basically said, “go for it,” thus engendering another level of respect in this age of threats, shaming, and witch hunting. 

Maybe it was the hair that makes Jagr too cool to care, but more likely its knowing the level his game has always been at. To various degrees. But it’s always been a plus game, as the baseball scouts say, with huge chunks of plus plus plus elite—which is to say, a quality of play maybe a dozen other players have reached. 

NHL
Jagr on Gretzky: 'I don't think he was from this planet'

People don’t realize this, but Jagr finished seventh last year in Hart voting. That would be for his age forty-three season. Still, if you want him in your top ten, you’re going to have to do some fancy maneuvering. Famed goalie Terry Sawchuk has to be there, same with Roy and Bourque. Personally, I’d put Jagr in front of Maurice Richard. Also Eddie Shore, maybe Doug Harvey.

The man he’s has just matched for points, Mark Messier, can make his case, too. For a bunch of years there seemed to be a Messier backlash, probably because Canucks fans always thought he screwed them over, he stuck around too long, and his return to New York felt like the move of a man who couldn’t let go. This was a guy, though, who won two Harts, and did it as a center when Lemieux and Gretzky were playing and at or near their peaks.

The Kid from Kladno: Jagr's journey to the NHL

Messier was a compiler, in a sense, which is how diehards who argue about whether people like Dave Andreychuk belong in the Hall tend to talk, but a compiler with an elite peak, much like Jagr. The latter is akin to the Greg Maddux of hockey, without as many individual awards, but a crazy run of good-to-great seasons. Plus, he had to contend with the so-called Dead Puck era, which turned the NHL into a league where you were a scoring ace if you managed to reach 65 points.

But perhaps more lastingly, Jagr is also the hockey player you want to be when you’re starting out, love the game, know you’re good at the game, and want to forestall not being good at the game for a long, long time. 
There’s a joy in the notion, and one bolstered each year, seemingly, in the case of Jagr, with fresh sheets of ice stretched out for the foreseeable future. When the NHL portion of his time on the ice finally comes to a close, you just know he’s going to start lighting up a beer league. Which is pleasing in an “all’s right with the world” kind of sense, even though we’re discussing just one rink-sized corner of the world. But as Jagr has proven, there is a lot to be had—and lot of points to be had, too—from that particular corner.

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