If you told me five years ago that there would be outrage about Jaromir Jagr still being an unrestricted free agent in 2017, and that said outrage would be somewhat valid, I would’ve likely assumed you to be insane.
Sure enough, though, the 45-year-old remains a very viable, and now much more positively seen NHL hockey player, that’s looking for a team. Jagr mentioned to Michael Langr of the official league website earlier this week that he was surprised at the lack of serious interests from clubs at this stage of the offseason. “I don’t have a clue,” Jagr said. “I leave it all on my agent [Petr Svoboda]. There [are] a couple of [NHL] teams that showed interest, but nothing specific yet.”
He noted that his fallback option is fairly straight forward; he’ll play with Kladno of the second-tier Czech 1.Liga until an NHL team comes calling. Jagr owns the team, and as such, can terminate his own contract whenever he’s ready to go back to the NHL. Granted, that becomes a poison pill in its own right; he’d have to clear waivers after signing if he plays games beyond the start of the NHL season.
But let’s forget doomsday, and focus on the player. On the surface, it makes no sense that a legend of the game that managed to put up 46 points on a non-playoff team last season, missed no time last year, and has been healthy enough to play over 85% of every season he’s played in the past 17 years would be sitting around waiting for an opportunity.
The underlying numbers back him up as well. Jagr missed some time in the early fancy stat era, but in the seven seasons that he has played with play-by-play data, he’s put up a positive shot attempt differential relative to his teammates, crossing the 5% Corsi Rel mark in three of the past four years. His point production rate at even strength was one of the league’s highest in 2015/16, and even with a drop this year, he found himself producing at a rate that compares to Jack Eichel and Jordan Eberle. Goals Above Replacement has him just outside the top 100 skaters in the league. All signs point to Jagr being a very good second line contributor last year. So why the skepticism?
The first, most obvious one is mobility. Jagr never made his money by being one of the fastest players in the world, instead relying on his strength to drive through opponents, but the gap between his pace and the direction of the league is becoming more apparent with each year. The Pittsburgh Penguins just won back-to-back Stanley Cups off of high-risk, high-reward, fast paced hockey (made easier by elite talent, of course). The biggest future threats to the throne appear to be the Toronto Maple Leafs (with the league’s least experienced core and fastest paced game) and the Edmonton Oilers (who have built themselves around arguably the most dominant pure skater to ever wear skates).
Up-tempo play appears to be where many of the best teams are getting their extra edge right now, and while Jagr is definitely better than the sluggish guys that fill up your average depth spot, he’s also not likely to want to agree to a support position in the first few weeks of free agency. We’re talking about a player who has averaged 17:47 of ice time per night in his 40’s, after all. On a line with two highly mobile skilled forwards, he could work as an along-the-boards type that helps maintain a cycle, but stylistically, you’ll have challenges finding him a spot where he can run a show.
Another point of concern that might be dipped in confirmation bias is Jagr’s struggle to score down the stretch. This was made most obvious in 2013 during Boston’s run to the Stanley Cup Final, in which he picked up 10 assists in 20 games, but didn’t score a goal. In fact, he hasn’t had highly productive playoff series since the first round of the 2012 playoffs; his possession numbers have remained high (over 10% CF Rel in all four postseason trips he’s made since 2008), but he hasn’t scored in his last 37 playoff games.
|Before March 1st||March 1st – Game 82|
This is leading people to subscribe to the notion that he runs out of gas early, and that he’s of little help to a contender. If that’s the case, it must be something that kicks in come mid-late April; if you separate his per-game production at March 1st of each of the past five seasons, he’s never dropped by more than 0.06 points per game, has improved his point production three of five years, and increased his shot rate down the regular season stretch in each of the last four seasons. But a half-season long drought will scare away many competing teams, no matter what else he brings.
We also don’t have much of an idea of what Jagr’s expected fit is. He might not have a substantive offer in place, but part of that might be because teams know his price range and know his location preferences. We talk about his late-career nomadic lifestyle as if he’ll go just about anywhere, but it’s worth pointing out that only 34 of his 1711 NHL games have been played in the Western Conference. He’s never played in Canada. And the salary? Jagr’s AAV last year was about $5.5 million; 15 of the league’s 31 teams have less cap space than that at the moment.
This all makes trying to find an ideal team very difficult. The primary objective for him will be to find a team that gives him regular minutes, plays at a pace that he can keep up with, has the cap space, and, given history, is probably an American team on the East Coast, or at least in a big market. Being able to win would be nice too.
|Rk||Team||Pace||Cap||17 Pos||T6 Pot||Conf||Country||Former|
|1||New Jersey Devils||102.71||18.8||27||Yes||East||USA||Yes|
|2||St Louis Blues||104.06||2.4||10||No||West||USA||No|
|3||Detroit Red Wings||104.41||0||25||Yes||East||USA||No|
|9||Tampa Bay Lightning||108.74||3.3||18||No||East||USA||No|
|WC||Vegas Golden Knights||N/A||5.6||N/A||Yes||West||USA||No|
Looking at the 10 lowest-event teams in the league last year (and Las Vegas), there isn’t really a team that fits all of the requirements. All of them are either coming off of awful years, have no cap space, have depth on the wing already, or are in a market that seems unlikely for him to go (back) to.
If Jagr is willing to bite the Canadian bullet, the Flames could make a good fit; Ari Yanover wrote a good piece about a month ago on FlamesNation making the case. Winnipeg could also work, so long as he knows that he’s playing many fiddles deep to the likes of Blake Wheeler, Patrik Laine, and Nikolaj Ehlers. Returning to Florida or being a marketable name in Vegas both seem like fun options too, but I don’t see them being in a position to give him a shot at winning. If that priority is off the table, returning to New Jersey might also be an option, but they seem to be tailoring their lineup towards mobility as well. Detroit would be one of those oddly-fitting spots if they have room after LTIR is over and done with, but even then, they have a glut of (not very good) forwards to worry about.
Simply put, the odds of finding a fit that allows Jagr to be the Jagr we’ve seen shatter age curves over the past few seasons are slim. He’ll likely be a square peg in a team’s round build, he may have to play a bit less every night, and he may even have to take a healthy scratch or two from a club that’s paranoid about the playoffs.
His pedigree and results will probably lead to a suitor at some point, once teams begin to shell out their training camp rosters and they figure out exactly what their budgets are, and that team will likely be better for it. At the same time, though, it’s not incredibly surprising that the hockey world is taking their time to extend his twilight tour.