When the dust settles and the disappointment fades a little more, it’s pretty much a given that Jaromir Jagr will want to play in the NHL again next season. And it’s also pretty much a given that the Florida Panthers will happily take him back.
But watching one of the greatest players in the history of the game labor through the Panthers’ first-round playoff loss to the New York Islanders, some very, very uncomfortable questions have to be asked. Because, folks, this is not a one-off. Jagr has struggled to keep up to the pace of the playoffs for a couple of years now. He has gone 37 playoff games without putting a single puck in the back of the net and when the Boston Bruins made their run to the Stanley Cup final in 2013, he had no goals in 22 games and by Game 6 of the Stanley Cup final, he had been demoted to the fourth line and played just 6:27, the second-lowest total on either roster. If you include his hometown Kladno team he joined during the 2011-12 lockout, Jagr has played for five teams since he last scored a playoff goal.
So when Jagr sits down with GM Dale Tallon to talk about another one-year contract, will Tallon pause and swallow hard? Will he consider the fact that Jagr has so much to give during the regular season, but simply can’t seem to keep up to the frenetic pace in the playoffs? Will he consider saying, ‘Thanks, but no thanks’ to a sure-fire Hall of Famer? One of the first things Neil Smith did when he became GM of the New York Rangers in 1989 was put Marcel Dionne on waivers, which ended his career. Smith recalled it was one of the most difficult managerial moves he ever had to make.
To be sure, Jagr is still much more effective at 44 years old than Dionne was a 38. Jagr led all Panthers in scoring this season and has had an enormously positive effect on the talented young players the Panthers have coming through their system. But in the playoffs, the Panthers were rarely a threat to score when Jagr was on the ice. Despite that, he was still getting 17-plus minutes in the games that were decided in regulation and played 28:42 and 27:07 in Games 5 and 6, which both went into double overtime. And as a result of Jagr playing so much, his linemates were not nearly as effective in the series as they could have been.
This is to be expected, for a couple of reasons. First, Jagr is five years older than the next oldest player in the series. Second, in the playoffs you’re playing against a quality team every night and this season Jagr’s numbers against good teams were quite mediocre. You can check it yourself. In 37 games against teams that did not end up qualifying for the playoffs this season, Jagr had 18 goals and 42 points. In 42 games against teams that finished in the playoffs, he had just 9-15-24 totals.
So where does this leave Jagr and the Florida Panthers? Well, when addressing his future after the Panthers lost Game 6, Jagr acknowledged, “If I come back, I know I have to be ready, practice differently.”
But it’s probably much deeper than that. The Panthers could tell Jagr that he can’t play back-to-back games anymore and he’ll be held out of some other games. They might tell him to turn in his key to the arena gym because all those late night workouts are sapping him of recovery he’ll need in the playoffs. That’s all well and good, but that is not going to make his feet move faster in the post-season. Jagr has long said he would like to play until he’s 50. Perhaps now it’s time to reconsider whether he should even be playing when he’s 45.
But this is not Shawn Thornton we're talking about here. If Jagr still thinks he can contribute, and there's no doubt that he can during the regular season, will his pride prompt him to insist on continuing to be a key player going forward? Jagr is currently 52 goals behind Gordie Howe for second on the NHL’s all-time goals list and he sits in sixth place in assists, 74 from moving up to third all-time. There was a time when both those looked like realistic benchmarks, but now the Panthers will have to consider that the more years Jagr plays, the more ice time he’s taking away from their young players and the more he’s going to be hindering them during the playoffs.
There are no easy answers to these difficult questions. But they have to be asked. And soon.