By Sean Hartnett
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After avoiding arbitration and sealing a fresh contract with key center Mika Zibanejad, the attention of general manager Jeff Gorton will turn to filling out his roster ahead of September’s training camp.
With Zibanejad signed to a five-year, $26.75 million ($5.35 million in annual-average value) contract, the Rangers have a shade over $3 million in available salary cap room to work with. Areas in need of bolstering are their forward depth and possibly upgrading their third defensive pairing, depending on how training camp battles shake out.
Gorton could choose to be proactive and use that cap space to identify and acquire an additional center who is capable of competing with Kevin Hayes for the second center spot behind Zibanejad. But cap space is such a valuable resource to have as the season goes on, as injuries occur and needs become clearer closer to the March 2018 trade deadline.
As their roster stands now, the Rangers possess four experienced natural centers in Zibanejad, Hayes, J.T. Miller and David Desharnais. Young centers Cristoval “Boo” Nieves and 2017 first-round draft picks Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil could figure into the competition. Add to that the possibility of several veteran centers who can be summoned on professional tryout agreements.
Personally, I think Miller’s improvement on the defensive side of the puck has grown to the point that he can be effective in a full-time center role. The 24-year-old offers versatility in being able to line up at all three forward positions. Should Miller be used primarily as a center, there are plenty of intriguing wing options still available in free agency.
Surely, Jaromir Jagr could outperform Brandon Pirri’s inconsistent, 18-point output of last season in a power play specialist/bottom-six wing role? Pirri has reportedly joined ex-Rangers teammate Kevin Klein, agreeing to sign for the ZSC Lions of the Swiss National League.
A Madison Square Garden reunion for the Jagr seems unlikely, but there are logical reasons for the Rangers to pursue this option, and it has little to do with Jagr’s ability to energize the fan base (he would certainly get the building buzzing) or jersey sales in the team stores. Those are just extra bonuses brought by No. 68’s popularity. Purely from a hockey standpoint, getting Jagr to sign an incentive-laden, one-year contract to fill a bottom-six role makes a great deal of sense.
How would this group of forwards look on opening night, Rangers fans? Keep in mind, right wing Jesper Fast is not expected to play until November due to offseason hip surgery.
I know what you’re thinking. There’s a perception out there that Jagr has little to offer with his 45-year-old legs and won’t be able to keep pace in Alain Vigneault’s go-go-go up-tempo system. Last season’s statistical drop-off meant that Jagr’s phone was quiet when free agency opened July 1.
But this isn’t a normal 45-year-old body we’re talking about. Jagr is a horse, and whatever he lacks in foot speed, he makes up for it through possession-driving play, incredible puck control along the wall and sharp instincts. If rugged winger Tanner Glass was able to skate and contribute in this system last playoffs, there’s no doubt that Jagr can be an upgrade to the bottom six.
Last season, Jagr appeared in all 82 games for the Florida Panthers and recorded 46 points on a team that dealt with a rash of injuries, philosophical clashes and management changes. He was rarely able to skate alongside usual linemates Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, who missed 21 and 51 games, respectively. When the trio was intact two seasons earlier, the Panthers won 47 games and racked up 103 points to finish first in the Atlantic Division. The Huberdeau-Barkov-Jagr line accounted for 75 goals and 184 points in 2015-16.
I’m wagering that Jagr’s decline after finishing seventh in Hart Trophy voting two seasons ago is due more to the instability in Florida than the effects of age. Two seasons ago, he ranked 12th in the NHL with 2.94 points per 60 minutes (minimum 46 games played). Last season, his P/60 of 1.98 was even with Los Angeles Kings superstar Anze Kopitar and higher than Patrick Marleau’s 1.96 P/60.
The Toronto Maple Leafs invested three years and $18.75 million in Marleau, who will turn 38 before opening night. That’s because Marleau remains durable and productive at an advanced hockey age. Same goes for Jagr – and there’s minimal risk that comes with signing him on a one-year deal.
Nobody works harder than Jagr, and no one can serve as a better guide for Zibanejad, Hayes, Miller, Chris Kreider, Pavel Buchnevich, Jimmy Vesey and company as they look to take their abilities to the next level.
It takes larger-than-life characters to win the Stanley Cup. There have been times when the Rangers looked a little too tight in their execution during the playoffs. Jagr isn’t shy and will pull a teammate aside after a shift to say what’s on his mind. His peerless dedication can rub off in the right way, and his colorful personality can keep a team loose when teammates are gripping their sticks too tight.
Playing under the bright lights of the Garden and for a team that he once captained in pursuit of hockey’s ultimate goal could be the tonic that revitalizes Jagr. Why not roll the dice on old No. 68?
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey