On July 1st, 2011 - amid Canada Day celebrations in my hometown of Ottawa, Canada (the capital), I was periodically checking my Twitter to get the lowdown on Free Agent Frenzy. Being from Canada, I could have chosen from 4 different sports networks (3 English, 1 French) who were broadcasting live on TV, however considering my girlfriend wanted to see Prince William and his new wife arrive on Parliament Hill (seriously), I was relying on handheld technology and frequent use of the 'Refresh' button to see what exactly the Flyers were going to do.
I remember a rumour had gained steam via Flyers reporters that Michal Handzus was set to become a Flyer once again. Yawn! At this time, I simply stopped checking my phone because I came to the realization that there was no one the Flyers could sign to captivate me on this hot summer day, and that my furious 'refreshing' would only lead to more disappointment (Maxime Talbot, but that's a post for another time) or more questions that would inevitably not be answered until a later time (such as where does he fit in?', 'who does this impact?', etc etc)
Shortly after the Prince arrived (didn't see him, too many people) and I made my way back home, I received a flurry of texts and tweets from friends, most of which contained the same two general statements: Jagr!! & Jagr?! Yes, the Flyers had signed Jaromir Jagr, he of 1599 career NHL points to a one year deal worth 3.3 million bones.
At this point, I realized that Handzus was not signing with the Flyers and my initial thought of an 'all-hair' line with Scott Hartnell, Handzus and Jagr was done. Moving on, I became fascinated by the two variations of public opinion regarding the Jagr signing, that being the side '!!' and '?!', respectively.
The JAGR!! camp was full of optimism. Here we have a player of tremendous talent and experience. The man is a first ballot hall of famer who had just shown that he was still a legitimate scoring threat in the World Hockey Championships for the Czech Republic at age 39. He scored 50+ goals and accumulated 120+ points in 2005-06, and while those kinds of stat expectations were never placed on him half a decade later, how could this move NOT improve the Flyers, a team who a week earlier treated some of their offensive players like an 'NHL '12' offseason.
The JAGR?! camp was much more subdued and almost bewildered. Here we have a 39 year old former superstar who has been away from the NHL for three seasons. Moreover, he signed a deal worth $3.3 million. At the time, the general consensus was that this was a classic 'overpay' - Jagr had leveraged his options with Pittsburgh, Montreal, and Detroit and basically sold himself to the highest bidder which turned out to be the Flyers. I'm aware he claims to have not signed for the money, but that's pretty ridiculous if you think about it.
When it came down to it, I had placed myself firmly in the 'Jagr?!' camp. I knew he had something left to give, but the thought of where he would play, his age, and his attitude had me skeptical. Let's say I was hoping for the best, but expecting the worst. As a Flyers fan, this way of thinking is pretty much entrenched by now.
As the summer dragged on, many similar questions arose surrounding Jagr, but the fact is none of it was going to be proven correct or incorrect until he actually put on the Flyer crest. This fact didn't stop me from making this Jagr situation a little more interesting. A friend of mine, who is a little older than myself, seemed stuck in the glory days of Jagr's five scoring titles, and seemingly unstoppable talent. For being such a Flyer hater over the years, I was surprised at the full blown optimism and praise he was giving to this signing. With that, we made a cash wager regarding Jagr's production that circled around this premise:
- Jaromir Jagr will finish in the top 25 in NHL scoring (including ties) if he plays at least 68 games this season
Naturally, I took the 'NO' side and at the time of the wager, and felt like it would be one of the easiest bets I had ever made, especially considering this same friend wagered Jason Spezza would eclipse the 100 point barrier last season (poor Sens fans).
As the pre-season began, I was interested to see for myself what Jagr looked like. Watching the game vs. the Rangers, it became evident very early that Jagr was definitely in shape, as well as having maintained his very suave, in-tight puck skills that are better suited for the smaller North American rinks anyway. I also realized that Claude Giroux was playing on his line, and if this were to become a trend into the season, the chances of me winning my wager would have decreased, albeit slightly.
By now, it seems like the majority of Flyer fans have converted and become a true believer in Jagr here. Why wouldn't you? He has played admirably - developing instant chemistry with Giroux, being a power play force, as well as playing a sound defensive game. No complaints here.
However, by now, my friend has been acting as if he's got this wager locked up (barring injury of course). Every time Jagr scores, my phone blinks, albeit mostly after a delay. I'm a Flyers fan, I'm well aware he's scored long before I get those messages, I'm watching the games, bud ! Further to this, I receive updates on Jagr's position in the scoring leaders on a twice per week basis. I don't need that either. If you didn't already know, he is in fact in the top 25 at this time - a 10-way tie for 13th place to be exact with 11 points in 11 games.
Personally, I am still happy with the chances of winning the wager. Top 25 last year was right around 70 points. I really don't see Jagr continuing around a point-per-game pace all season. With that being said, if he continues to play with Giroux - it is possible. My feelings of doubt are rooted with the same reservations that the 'Jagr?!' camp had when he originally signed on the dotted line in July. His age and the seemingly inevitable ups and downs of an 82 game NHL season are major factors. Jagr has been a terrific power play performer, but his even strength time is relatively low - likely due to the Flyers wanting to ensure he doesn't get overworked (see Bobrovsky, 2010-11).
The question is what if the honeymoon with Jagr is short lived? What happens if his effort and production slide for a few games and/or it becomes a pattern? We all know Peter Laviolette's doghouse is easy to enter and difficult to exit (see Nik Zherdev, 2010-11). Does Jagr become a 3rd line player at any point this season? The Flyers have an over-abundance of potential top 6 forwards - it's not unfathomable that all of Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, Matt Read, and Brayden Schenn could play top 6 minutes for extended periods of time this season, perhaps at the same time - where would that leave Jagr? My biggest fear for Jagr is physical breakdown over time but granted, it's far too early to get a grasp on how his body will react to a full season + playoffs. So far, so good.
With Giroux and Danny Briere solidified as the team's top two centers, and James van Riemsdyk a versatile player who needs top 6 minutes to reach his full potential, it's a crowded lineup for significant minutes at best. It is my belief that a healthy Jagr will most certainly always have lots of power play time no matter what, but if you combine that with a healthy dose of 3rd line minutes - production will certainly fade some. If, for whatever reason, Jagr sees his role decreasing at even strength or some of those old bad habits we've seen in his previous NHL stints begin to creep back, I think it's safe to say Laviolette will do his utmost to develop his younger players, who happen to be under contract next year, rather than cater to Jagr. If this type of situation were to occur, how Jagr handles it will be what he's remembered for in Philly, good or bad.
Let me be clear that I don't see Jagr falling into a Zherdev type cycle like last season and he is by no means even comparable to Z by any stretch, however you have to believe the priority for Flyers' brass will be the youth movement and development, rather than catering to a struggling, aging player on a one year deal. This year is very important for Flyers fans, but so are the next five moving forward. The youth movement, and not Jagr, will be crucial to the future here.
In the end, I truly hope Jagr continues at this pace. He really has been a joy to watch and has given me ABSOLUTELY no reason to worry thus far. Winning the wager would be nice, but if Jagr finishes in the top 25 between 65-80 points, that would be a very impressive $3.3 million value.
But, if times get tough and Jagr czechs out (pun intended), what will we make of him?
Here's hoping this honeymoon lasts!
What do you think? There are a lot of rhetorical questions in this piece, yes but what I want to know is:
1) Will I win this wager? (see poll below)
2) Are you a full fledged 'JAGR!!' believer, or do you think we might be screaming 'JAGR?!' by season's end?
All comments are appreciated.