‘Devils in the Details’
By Sean Hartnett
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When 41-year-old winger Jaromir Jagr signed with the Devils in July, his arrival in New Jersey was met with wide skepticism.
Esteemed hockey experts questioned how much the 6-foot-3, 240-pound veteran had left in the tank, as it became clear over the course of the 2012-13 season that Father Time was finally catching up with Jagr.
Reservations over Jagr’s usefulness at the age of 41 came mostly from an underwhelming playoff campaign with the Boston Bruins. At the end of his tenure in Boston, Jagr’s skating speed had slowed to the pace of an old man driving far below the speed limit on the highway as younger, athletic players darted past him with ease.
His shifts became shorter, his stamina appeared to be drained and Jagr’s renowned magic touch departed him as he failed to score a goal in 22 playoff games with the Bruins.
Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello was prepared to roll the dice after superstar winger Ilya Kovalchuk abandoned the Devils through a “faux retirement” that paved the way for his defection to the KHL.
The free-agent market began thinning out. Lamoriello intelligently offered Jagr a one-year deal at $2 million guaranteed with the ability for the Czech icon to earn another $2 million incentive should he play at least 40 games. On paper, it wasn’t a bad deal at all. Yet plenty of hockey analysts questioned the fit and called it a “knee-jerk reaction” by Lamoriello and the Devils.
Some Devils fans cringed at the idea of Lamoriello signing a player who they viewed as “washed up,” and weren’t warm to the idea of a former Rangers captain and an ex-Philadelphia Flyer pulling on the red and black sweater of the Devils.
LAMORIELLO’S DECISION TO SIGN JAGR IS PAYING OFF TREMENDOUSLY
Yet, Lamoriello’s decision to sign Jagr is already proving to be one of the summer’s wisest moves through the quarter-mark of the 2013-14 season. Higher-priced Newfoundland duo Michael Ryder and Ryane Clowe were expected to be the difference-makers for New Jersey by filling important roles lost through the key departures of Kovalchuk and David Clarskon.
Ryder was brought in to fill the need for a power-play sniper as Kovalchuk returned to his Russian homeland, while Clowe was signed to replace the physicality lost by Clarkson, who opted to sign for the team he grew up admiring, the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Devils haven’t gotten the production they anticipated from the struggling Ryder, who has only chipped in eight points in 22 games, while concussion symptoms have prevented Clowe from making a significant impact.
All of this makes Jagr’s impact on the Devils all the more vital. Through 22 games, Jagr has scored nine goals and registered nine assists for 18 points while maintaining a healthy +10 plus/minus rating.
Jagr’s value goes far beyond the points he’s contributing on the stat sheet. He’s been an unmovable dynamo on the puck. Just ask captain Dustin Brown of the Los Angeles Kings. Brown recently told Kings insider Jon Rosen that both he and teammate Anze Kopitar have struggled against Jagr over the years.
“I mean, I’ve tried to hit him, and he doesn’t budge,” Brown told LAKingsInsider.com. “I remember there was an instance at home last year against Dallas where Kopi was one-on-one with him, and Kopi’s a pretty big, strong guy in the corners.
“I mean, you have to ask Kopi, but he couldn’t even move the guy. A lot of it with him is just trying to contain him and limit his options. He’s one of those players that he’s so hard to eliminate.”
‘OLD MAN’ JAGR STILL HAS A FEW TRICKS IN HIS BAG
Against the Kings on Thursday night, Jagr showed that he’s got plenty of magic left in those veteran hands of his. With 2:30 remaining in overtime, Jagr cut to the net as “Czech mate” Marek Zidlicky fed Jagr in the low slot.
No. 68 patiently held the puck and sneaked it underneath Kings netminder Ben Scrivens to give the Devils the 2-1 overtime win in a game where Los Angeles had dominated from start to finish. The Kings outshot the Devils, 35-15.
For Jagr, it was also a milestone night as the goal tied immortal Detroit Red Wings icon Gordie Howe’s NHL record of 121 game-winning goals. The goal also pulled Jagr even with former Pittsburgh Penguins teammate — the legendary “Super Mario” Lemieux — at ninth overall on the all-time scoring list with 690 career goals. Jagr also increased his own NHL record of overtime goals to 18.
It was the second night in a row that Jagr’s flair for the dramatic figured greatly in overtime victories over powerhouse Western Conference opponents. A night earlier, Jagr and the Devils handed the dominant Anaheim Ducks a 4-3 overtime defeat. Jagr’s powerful one-timed goal with 61 seconds remaining forced overtime before defenseman Ben Lovejoy’s unlucky clearance went into his own net, sending the Ducks to a sour defeat. It was Anaheim’s first loss on home ice this season.
JAGR’S VALUE GOES FAR BEYOND HIS ON-ICE IMPACT
Jagr’s impact for the Devils extends far beyond his performances on the ice. Devils teammate Danius Zubrus remembers studying Jagr closely when they played together previously in Washington. I caught up with Zubrus before the Devils headed west.
“I played with him in Washington, I watched him as a younger guy,” Zubrus said. “I watched how he protects the puck and how good he is along the boards, making plays — all that stuff.”
The 35-year old Zubrus isn’t exactly a youngster these days, but he still notices things he can pick up on fro Jagr’s veteran example.
“There’s tons of stuff that anybody can learn (from Jagr), really,” Zubrus said. “Even now, we talk and he gives me a couple of tips here and there. So far, he’s been great.”
Jagr has reestablished himself as a game-breaker. He’s also put to rest any doubts over his ability to handle the rigors of the NHL at the advanced age of 41. He’s logged 17 to 20 minutes of game action per night over the past five games.
It begs the question why many GMs passed on Jagr during the offseason. For the Devils and Lamoriello, Jagr has been absolute gold. Few thought that New Jersey would be standing above the Rangers at the 22-game mark. Currently, the Devils are a point ahead of their Hudson River rivals, standing at third place in the Metropolitan Division — and much of the credit goes to Jagr.
He’s older and grayer — but Jagr is still the “magic man.”
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.
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