In 2007-08, 36-year-old Jaromir Jagr scored 71 points for the Rangers -- 25 fewer points than he had the year before, and 52 fewer than he'd scored two years prior. That spring, during the postseason, Jagr admitted that he'd conserved energy during the regular season to be prepared for the playoffs. His strategy worked -- Jagr scored five goals and added 10 assists in 10 playoff games that year against New Jersey and Pittsburgh -- but it was the sort of thing you'd only expect from a player whose career had just about reached the end.
When Jagr accepted a lucrative offer during the 2008 offseason to play in the KHL, it looked like his days in the NHL could be over: He could, if he wanted, play out his remaining hockey years in Russia, where he'd face lesser competition but be well-compensated for his services. There are worse ways to ease into retirement.
Except that the KHL wasn't Jagr's final stop. He returned to the NHL prior to last season, and two years into his return, he now has his best chance in years to once again get his name on the Stanley Cup. Five years ago, it wasn't clear if he'd ever play in the NHL again. Now, after a trade deadline move rescued him from Dallas and sent him to the Bruins, he's going to play a part for a contender.
These past couple of seasons have been an nice final act for Jagr, as he's completed the transition from one of the best players in the game -- a guy who collected a Hart Trophy and five Art Ross Trophies during his prime -- to more of a supporting role. In Philadelphia last year, he was called on to be one of a handful of weapons, in addition to serving a mentor to the team's younger players. (Jagr tallied nineteen goals and 35 assists last year, good for third on the team, but part of a cluster of five forwards with between 47 and 54 points.) This year in Dallas, he wound up serving a weird dual role: He was again asked to act as something of a mentor, but on a Stars team going nowhere, he was leading the team in scoring at the deadline, despite producing points at roughly the same rate that he did last year.
Still, his 26 points in 34 games with Dallas were good enough for a team like Boston -- looking to respond to Pittsburgh's deadline moves -- to show an interest in him for the stretch run. He may not create offense like he once did, but he's still got some game: The way he protects the puck with his 6-3 frame, or the way he can still fire off a dangerous wrist shot from the high slot. In Boston, a team with an established core that won a Stanley Cup just two years ago, he doesn't need to be the Man. He just needs to be a piece of the puzzle, and there's something exciting about Jagr, at 41, potentially playing a role on a team that goes deep into the playoffs. (With all due respect to last year's Flyers, this year's Bruins, despite some uneven play recently, would appear to give Jagr a better opportunity to take part in a deep run.)
There have been several distinct phases in Jagr's career: The young gun with the Hall of Fame mullet, the established scorer who at one point was the league's brightest star, the Capital who disappointed Washington fans, the veteran who revived his career in New York, and then the current Jagr, playing a supporting role in his early 40s. Along the way, fanbases have turned against him, for various reasons: He's booed in Pittsburgh, Washington, and for reasons I never fully understood last year, New York. Still, he remains one of the most iconic players of his generation -- one of the faces of the league in the late 90s, when the NHL made real strides in the United States. (Seriously, this photo makes me want to lace up a pair of roller blades and shoot some pucks in my parents' driveway.)
A recent profile in D Magazine noted the two sides of Jagr. One is the business-like, sometimes surly Jagr who did as he pleased and wasn't always a treat for members of the media. (The article relays the story of how he once told a New Yorker writer to leave town because his arrival in Pittsburgh coincided with the end of a long Penguins winning streak.) And then there's the more playful Jagr, the one with a sense of humor and a big smile. (This fall 2007 post-game interview, in which Jagr joked to reporters after getting his face bloodied that at least he wouldn't need to buy a Halloween mask, jumps immediately to mind.) But in that D Magazine profile, Jagr also talks about how, when he entered the league, his primary concern was winning scoring titles. Now, though, he says he's less selfish -- and it's apparent that new mindset has allowed him to continue in the NHL now that league scoring titles are no longer realistic.
The last couple of years have brought a few reminders of just how long Jagr's been around: then-Flyers teammate Zac Rinaldo discussing on HBO's 24/7 in 2011 how he used to play against video-game Jagr on Sega when he was a kid, or Dallas teammate Eric Nystrom talking about how he used to have Jagr's poster on his wall, or the photo that made the rounds last week of Jagr with a ten-year-old Milan Lucic, now Jagr's teammate on the Bruins.
One of my favorite visuals from this season was the row of fans in Calgary who celebrated Jagr's career with mullet wigs and jerseys from each of his NHL teams. (The winger smiled at them when they directed the traditional Jagr salute at him.) It was a silly moment, of course, but it was also a sign that we'd reached the point of reflecting on Jagr's career, even if it's not quite over yet. With Jagr in Boston now, there's the potential for at least one more chapter in the story of his career. Jagr's Bruins are battling Montreal for first place in the Northeast Division, and the winner is all but guaranteed at least the No. 2 seed in the East. And no matter Boston's seed entering the playoffs, Jagr will play a role.
This won't necessarily be his final season. In fact, Jagr had provided the Stars with a list of teams to which he'd accept a trade after contract talks didn't result in an extension, suggesting he's game to come back for at least another year. Still, though, who knows how many more chances Jagr -- one of the all-time greats -- is going to get?
And hey, if nothing else, Jagr's presence on the Bruins makes a potential Boston-Pittsburgh playoff series even more attractive.
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