Now that hockey season has ended, many Pens fans (like me) are kind of in denial; as a result we're turning our focus to the offseason and free agency. In that spirit, I wanted to bring up a possible Penguins signing most people aren't discussing right now.
First of all, this technically is not a possibility at the moment. Jagr is currently signed with his KHL club through next season, and Evgeni Malkin can tell you (off the record) how casual the Russian league is about the sanctity of contract. Nonetheless, last winter and spring, rumors were swirling that the KHL was in danger of going under due to the falling price of oil. And Jagr was on record saying that he'd like to return to the NHL. (Although the latter rumors were in the context of his going to play in Edmonton. As Pens fans know all too well, sometimes the championship thirst of a star player can only be quenched elsewhere.) But, for the sake of argument, let's say the KHL goes bankrupt and Jagr becomes a free agent by default: should Pittsburgh try to sign him? The answer to this question seems to raise three sets of issues:
1. How Many Shots are Left in that Bottle of Jagr? While many of us are old enough to remember Jagr as a boyish 17-year-old with lightning moves and a spectacular hockey mullet, 1990 was actually a long time ago, and the guy is now 36. And he was never exactly an Iron Man as far as injuries went. Nevertheless, just 13 months ago he was outstanding in a losing effort in the playoffs against Pittsburgh, and he netted 54 goals as recently as 2005-2006. And by all accounts his play in Russia this year has been superlative. So, it's probably safe to say he's got good years left. Now, "add a dynamic scoring winger" is pretty high on Pittsburgh's to-do list this summer, and Jagr is still one of the better ones in the business. Is anyone else intrigued by the idea of Jagr skating on a wing with Malkin and Fedotenko? I thought so.
2. A Flock of C-Notes Like Bugsy Seigel. So, how much would this cost? On one hand, Jagr has often been accused of only caring about the money. And honestly, with his gambling debts (sorry, ALLEGED gambling debts), who could blame him? But maybe a season of being paid in an appreciating currency on a tax-free basis has allowed him to pay some of that off. But seriously, one would hope that Jags (and his agent) realize that a player of his age and, ahem, reputation isn't getting a long-term deal or Ovechkin money from anybody. If the Pens pursued him, it would clearly be as a complementary player and as a short-term deal. He would clearly get more than the league minimum (the guy is a sure-fire Hall of Famer, after all), but it's possible he could be had for a reasonable salary and one or two seasons.
3. We May Be Through With the Past, but the Past Isn't Through With Us. And now we turn to the elephant in the room: how would Penguins fans receive Jagr in 2009-2010? No Pittsburgh athlete I can think of has been so beloved, only to so thoroughly wear out their welcome, as Jaromir Jagr. I remember the guerilla warfare Jagr waged against coaches like Kevin Constantine and Ivan Hlinka, seeing him half-assing his shifts, etc. And, if you can find one, ask a Caps fan with a long memory what they think of Jagr; if the phrase "single-handedly murdered our franchise for half a decade" doesn't come up I'll be surprised. I remember the history. But ultimately it's not what I judge Jags on. Maybe I'm just a nice guy (my ex-girlfriends would probably say there must be another explanation), but I think of the good times when I think of Jaromir Jagr. Much as Pens fans are enjoying taunting Marian Hossa right now, I'm sure that joy will fade for me, because for me Hossa was never really a Pen: he was a deadline rental who wasn't in Pittsburgh long enough to even see autumn. But Jagr was a Pen. I remember him as the greatest one-on-one player I'd ever seen until What's-His-Name took the ice for the Capitals in 2005. I remember when he was drafted, an awkward kid not much older than I was, living in Pennsylvania without a word of English, and seeing Mario, Badger Bob, and Scotty Bowman quickly turn him from an entertaining defensive liability into one of hockey's most dangerous players. I think of the two Stanley Cup banners hanging right now in Mellon, and how we wouldn't have won either without him. I think of the nearly 450 goals he scored wearing our sweater, and I really hope his number 68 is hanging from the new building's roof not long after he retires. Ultimately, for all of our sarcasm, I think Pittsburghers are warm people who will give someone another chance if it's asked for, and I'm ready to give Jaromir Jagr a second chance. As far as his "character issues", things have only gone sour with Jagr when he's been expected to be the face of a franchise: when he played second fiddle to Lemieux in Pittsburgh, and when he ceded the leadership role to Brendan Shanahan in New York, he was a good citizen; as a complementary piece on a team with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, I think he'd be fine. And I would love the storyline. I would love to see Jagr return to the NHL, and to the city where it all began for him; I would love to see him banging in timely goals, and trying to wrap up his career helping one more team win a Stanley Cup. And I would love to see him lift that thing one more time, and redeem himself with the Pittsburgh fans. If nothing else, all the Jagr-haters in the hockey media (Milbury, Melrose, etc.) would have something else to shove into their collective craw, which I would love.