The Flyers are banking on former Hart Trophy winner Jaromir Jagr to have a little left in the tank. The verdict is obviously still out, but it’s likely the 39-year-old winger will lose his steam long before the most critical stretch of the season.
Three years removed from the NHL, the 6’3″ 242-pound winger, has spent those years in the KHL, which is considered the second-best league in the world next to the NHL. Playing with Omsk Avangard, he’s put up some nice numbers, posting just under a point a game.
Those who promote his return to the NHL state that he’s still got it, citing his hat trick in this year’s Hockey World Championships. What they don’t reveal is the circumstances. The tournament began on April 29 and finished on May 15. Those dates should sound familiar to fans of the NHL, as they occur during the Stanley Cup playoffs.
European professional leagues have around 50 regular season games followed by a short playoff, so they are all finished by the start of the World Championships. Players playing in the KHL can report to their national teams, but teams that are usually stocked with NHL talent have to wait until their players NHL teams are eliminated, having to first create a team of filler players from wherever they can find them. This is a problem for countries like USA, Canada, Russia, Sweden, and Finland, which are forced to fill their rosters with a hodge-podge of whatever they can find.
The game in which Jagr scored his hat-trick happened against the US team, which consisted of a number of youngsters not yet in the NHL, Ty Conklin, the backup netminder of the Blues, in goal, and several players from teams that had been eliminated early, including Flyers power winger James van Reimsdyk, who had recently reported to the team. Although not a terrible achievement, this is by no means representative of how he’ll fit into the NHL grind.
A better estimation of how he’ll perform would be to go back to the 2010 Winter Olympics, in which each team was loaded with NHL talent. A good look at that tournament would reveal that Jagr looked like a sluggish shell of his former self. He used the same tricks along the boards he’d been using for decades, but now he absorbed hit after hit before being stripped of the puck. He lumbered through the neutral zone with his head down and was leveled by Alex Ovechkin, of the Capitals. After the hit, he picked himself up off the ice, skated back to his bench, and threw a tantrum.
Taking a look at the Flyers’ latest facelift, it’s believed they wanted to get younger, faster, and bigger on the wing. At 6’3″ and 240 lbs., he can at least offer one of those attributes.
There’s no question Jagr’s a smart, experienced player with a great deal of hockey knowledge to pass on. One possible reason the Flyers brought him on is to mentor fellow Czech winger, Jacob Voracek.
When asked about the 21-year-old winger, recently acquired from Columbus, Flyers GM Paul Holmgren said, “He’s a bigger, probably faster version of Ville Leino.” Voracek has plenty of potential, but it has yet to materialize in his three seasons with Columbus. Possibly under the tutelage of a former MVP will do him some good.
On a conference call, Jagr remarked about there being no guarantees, referring to what’s expected of his play.
The new Flyer also said, “If I play bad and people criticize me, that’s fine. But on the other side, if I play bad, people are going to criticize those people who brought me to Philadelphia. That would be tough for me. That’s the way I think. It would be tough for me because I let somebody down who believed in me. With my age, that’s the toughest thing. That’s the way I look at it.”
That’s a big gamble for the Flyers, who have given their eldest winger $3.3 million for a single season to try and prove he still has it.
To put that figure into perspective, Mike Modano, who, having just turned 40, signed with Detoit for $1.75 million. He had never left the NHL.
The Flyers are also looking for Jagr to show the passion for the game they’ve seen him display so many times before. For a short time, he was the captain of the Penguins, and can easily be an inspiration to a locker room. He’s also been called moody, brooding, and childish at times.
Jagr hasn’t had to handle a grueling NHL season in three years. He hasn’t been squared up against the best in the world in some time. In the 2011-2012 season, Flyers fans will likely see flashes of his former glory, but by the time he turns 40 in February, he’ll probably fizzle out.