To what standard does Jaromir Jagr, future first-ballot Hall of Famer, hold himself and his peers? Consider what he had to say after his Florida Panthers’ road game versus the Toronto Maple Leafs Thursday night:
“I don’t think we had the legs. I don’t think our line played very well. It’s our job to score goals for this team. Coach gave us the opportunity to play together. Our line didn’t do a good job the first period, but we got the legs back. We had a few good shifts, and it helped.”
“It was a tough loss in Tampa Bay. I feel like we outplayed them. We just made some tough mistakes that cost us the game. And just, emotionally, I could tell I was tired. We were on such a high note, we played all the games good and just made bad mistakes.”
“I’ve been here 12 games and, in my opinion, we could’ve won all 12.”
Hmm. Not quite the typical response from someone whose team just won 4-1. Especially when his line scored two goals in 30 seconds, including the game winner. But that never-satisfied mentality has made Jagr the legend he is today. Tuesday’s crushing loss stays with him more than Thursday’s win. A poor first period overshadows a dominant second period. And the hunger to be better inspires those trademark late-night workouts of his.
You’ve probably heard and read plenty about Jagr, 43, playing with Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, and how all their years on Earth add up to less than Jagr’s. But it’s interesting to hear Jagr refer to his assignment with them as an “opportunity.” It’s a two-way street. He’s one of the 10 best players ever and just passed Phil Esposito for fifth on the all-time goals list, but he realizes he has two high-ceiling prospects at his disposal. Slick-handed Huberdeau, taken third overall in 2011, came up through the QMJHL as a Memorial Cup-winning phenom. Big pivot Barkov, the second overall pick in 2013, skated circles around grown men in the Finnish League before arriving in the NHL months after the draft. Jagr seems to understand he has the best possible company on the Panthers squad that acquired him Feb. 26.
The results suggest mutual appreciation – and chemistry. Jagr’s nine points in 12 games with Florida represent improvement from his pre-trade production in New Jersey. Barkov’s arrow points upward, with eight points over that span, and Huberdeau in particular is a changed player, with 12 points in 13 games and 11 in the 12 games for which Jagr has dressed.
Even if the relationship is symbiotic, it’s difficult not to worship the ice Jagr skates on. Asked if playing with him was intimidating at first, Barkov nods rather discreetly. It’s awkward, as Jagr is about five feet away, solidly within earshot.
“First, when somebody told me he was going to be on our team, I didn’t believe that,” Barkov said. “It’s weird – I’m playing with him, and I think he played 300 games before I was born. But I’m really happy right now.”
The actual number: 359. Close enough. Not surprisingly, Barkov and Huberdeau have tried to sponge up everything Jagr says or does. Barkov has learned about Jagr’s epic weight room exploits, and the pair talk after every shift. Huberdeau has paid close attention to what makes Jagr special and how he makes others around him better, noting Jagr’s puck-carrying ability has created more room and thus more scoring chances.
And, hey, off the ice, who could resist picking the brain of a man who wants to play pro hockey until he’s 50?
“For sure,” Barkov said. “I’m 19, he’s 43, but he doesn’t look like he’s 43. He’s a good guy. You can talk to him. You can spend time with him.”
How about a whole lot more time with him next year? If the trio continues playing like they do, maybe GM Dale Tallon keeps No. 68 in Panther colors.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin