New Jersey Devils sign Jaromir Jagr, hope for the best
Jaromir Jagr a Devil? In some ways, it seems nonsensical, laughable, absurd, preposterous, and a few other adjectives I found in the thesaurus. But that's the reality, anyway, now that New Jersey has signed the 41-year-old free agemt winger to a one-year deal that is reportedly worth a base salary of $2 million with another $2 million attached to his playing at least 40 games next season.
"I'm 41 years old," Jagr said during a confernce call to announce his new deal. "I don't have many options, there are not many teams looking for a forward 41 years old, especially with the salary cap going down."
Look, I get it: The Devils have lost Ilya Kovalchuk, probably their main offensive weapon. His return to Russia left a vaccum at the top of their depth chart and an equally large abyss at the Prudential Center box office. How could Lou Lamoriello look at those twin craters, scan the list of available free agents, and not have the name of Kladno's favorite son jump right off the page at him?
We're talking about the leading scorer among all active NHLers here, not to mention the extra added bonus that, even as a greybeard (camouflaged, I'm sure, by some dark coloring product), Jagr is still probably a bigger draw than Kovalchuk, a larger and more engaging personality with a higher public profile.
And yet, here's the thing that, on the surface at least, seems so incongruous about the Devils courting Jagr. When each were at their respective peaks, they would never have even considered this sort of marriage. It would have been a match made in hell.
Young Jagr was flamboyant, blowing kisses to the crowd, removing his glove and saluting after goals, his broad smile and good looks -- not to mention his exceptional hands and strong play -- captured fans in Pittsburgh and beyond. His thick mullet stuck out from under his helmet, nearly reaching his nameplate and his number 68. He wasn't really a bad boy, just a free spirit, matching the verve with which he played. He was young, handsome and had money, and he certainly enjoyed the perks of being an emerging NHL superstar. He came complete with not the best traffic safety record, a reputation for spending large sums on games of chance, reports of huge debts to Atlantic City's casinos, and problems with the IRS.
By the later '90s, Jagr had become the game's top offensive star in its least productive era, with four consecutive scoring titles, but his defensive game, well, let's just say it wasn't his specialty. The guy had seasons of 127 and 121 points and wasn't a plus-20 in either of them.
Along the parallel track, of course, the Devils became three-time Stanley Cup champions by erecting the NHL's ultimate defensive palisade in front of goalie Marty Brodeur. One-way play by any skater was not part of the equation. Under Lamoriello, perhaps hockey's arch-traditionalist, the Devils have always frowned upon bad behavior anywhere. To play for New Jersey is to be a professional first, last and always. Showboating, displays of individuality and breaches of unity usually mean a quick exit (see: Esa Tikkanen's very brief tenure). Among the legends in the Lamoriello playbook is the episode in which he ordered Devils trainers to saw the permanent gold chain from around Scott Gomez's neck so it would not be visible in his official team portrait.
Back then, Lou went so far to as discourage players from wearing sweater numbers over 30, although he made exceptions for veterans who had previously become identified with high numbers, like Doug Gilmour wearing 93. He's loosened up some on this issue, but still, after Monday's initial reports of a Jagr-Devils agreement, Yahoo's Puck Daddy blogger and Devils fan Greg Wyshynski tweeted, "Lamoriello announces compromise with Jagr, will allow him to wear #6 at home and #8 on the road."
So the long-time image of this player and this team seem at odds. However, things change and Jagr has probably changed more than the Devils. If his 2001 trade by the bankrupt Penguins to the Capitals signaled a loss of innocence, his 2004 trade to the Rangers was more of a personal failure, his elite talent and star power unable to make Washington a winner and fill the Verizon Center.
His three-plus seasons in New York, interrupted by the lost lockout season of 2004-05, included his last great ones and also saw the beginning of his decline. Out of a contract with the Rangers, he spoke with a few teams about staying in the NHL, then -- like Kovalchuck -- he was off to the KHL in 2008 to become that league's marquee star as it pushed to rival the NHL. The rumor was that Avangard Omsk offered him more money than any NHL club, although the initial reports of $35 million for three years turned out to be wildly inaccurate ... by about $20 million.
"It wasn't an easy decision," he said at the time. "It was the toughest decision in my life, hockey-wise. It was a lot tougher than I thought it was going to be. No question about it. I hate making changes."
The plan was to play a few more years and then retire or perhaps play for his hometown Kladno team, which he co-owns with his father in the Czech Republic. But, after one year, he said he missed the NHL. The KHL's deficiencies may have played a part -- especially the league's inadequate response in the October 2008 death of his young linemate Alexei Cherepanov, who collapsed on the Avangard bench when his heart stopped during a game.
But Jagr fulfilled his contract, and when his KHL deal was up, surprise of surprises, he unexpectedly signed a $3.3 million one-year contract with the Flyers in 2011, after talking with the Penguins and Red Wings, who offered less money.
He started strongly. He still had a powerful shot and could make uncanny passes. And observers in Philly perceived a new dedication in Jagr, his hard work at practice, his off-ice training, his team-first ethic. He had not abandoned his smile and had lost none of his sense of humor. The hair on his head was shorter, however, and his playoff beard was not all brown. By the end of that season, the years began to show. Never a top-flight skater, his 40 year old frame couldn't keep pace.
He returned to Kladno to play during the 2012-13 lockout, then signed with Dallas for $4.4 million, much more than he got from the Flyers. (He's made more money playing NHL hockey than anyone ever has; Ronnie Shakur, an editor at The Hockey News, tweeted Monday that Jagr has totaled $105,838,851 in earnings.) But the Stars were going nowhere -- costing GM Joe Nieuwendyk his job -- and Jagr was dealt to the Bruins. That meant a trip back to the Stanley Cup Final, his first since winning his second consecutive in 1992 with Pittsburgh -- a record gap of 21 years. But while he registered 10 assists, Jagr did not score a postseason goal last spring. Playing mostly on the second line for the Bruins with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, he couldn't keep pace and didn't exactly shine in the final against the speedy Blackhawks.
But Jagr has a role he can play in New Jersey. He can still work wonders on the power play. If he's used right and not given too many minutes, he can probably contribute five-on-five. But some speculate that one reason he and the Devils became a match is because the absence of Kovalchuk means that Jagr would get to play some big minutes. That's what New Jersey needs and it's what Jagr would like, but if the playoffs were any indication, it's unclear whether he's suited for that role at this stage of his career.
"I certainly watched him the last couple of years, with Philly and Boston in the playoffs," Lamoriello said during the conference call. "I've never seen him work so hard and make people around him better. I just felt with his experience and what he can bring to the power play, he still has the size and strength."
It could be exciting for Devils fans, who are getting desperate for some good news after losing Kovalchuk and David Clarkson. They are already commenting and tweeting that they look forward to Jagr's abilitty to score, his leadership, veteran savvy, familiarity with Czech Olympians Patrik Elias and Marek Zidlicky, and willingness to be a mentor to young players.
Still, others are wondering what will be higher, Jagr's games-played or his sweater number, his points total or his age?
"Between Jagr and Brodeur," one snarky tweet read, "that's some nice AARP travel discounts for the Devils."
Jagr's arrival in New Jersey also means he's played for four different teams in three seasons. That's a lot for someone who hates making changes. His has been a Hall of Fame career, but that sort of movement usually signals the end is near.