At 43 years and 56 days old, Jaromir Jagr is the oldest player currently in the NHL, and he will remain so going into next season after signing a one-year deal to stay with the Florida Panthers. Assuming he can maintain his level of play, this could potentially bring some huge changes to the team.
Playing on a line with a struggling Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov since February 28th, the changes in those two players over the course of 20 games is almost tangible. Amassing 19 goals and 35 assists for a total 54 points and 138 shots on goal as a line, there is something magical that happens when they’re on the ice together. It’s impossible to consider it a coincidence; Jagr is just too good, too experienced and too much of a presence on the ice to assume there’s any other reason for their success since his arrival.
Huberdeau and Barkov Step Up
Huberdeau, who has not quite lived up to expectations after being drafted third overall in 2011, has suddenly become a contender. With a rookie season that earned him the Calder Trophy, followed by a somewhat disappointing sophomore year (9-19), the 2014-15 season seemed to be a lot of the same. That started to change on February 28th, 2015, which was Jagr’s first game with the Panthers. Though the change wasn’t evident immediately, it didn’t take long. Twenty games later, Huberdeau took the lead and finished the season with the most points on the team (although previous leader, Nick Bjugstad, left the season early to have back surgery). Ending with a respectable 15 goals and 39 assists, he managed to finally stepped into his place as a top scorer for the team.
By the same token, Aleksander Barkov was also playing a less successful game than he probably should have been until the arrival of Jagr. The 19-year-old center, drafted 2nd overall in 2013, had a mere 9 goals and 12 assists in the first 50 games of the season. However, in just 20 games after Jagr was put on his line, he scored 7 goals and 12 assists, nearly 90% of his previous numbers in less than half the number of games. Again, it’s difficult to call such a dramatic improvement a coincidence, especially when you consider that the one game that Jagr did not play, on March 5th against Dallas, Barkov did not have any points.
The Magic of Jagr
Since being drafted fifth overall in the 1990 NHL Entry Draft, Jagr has kept busy. Though he won back-to-back Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1991 and 1992, his career has gone in quite a few different directions. Playing for a plethora of teams like Washington, the New York Rangers, Philadelphia, Dallas, Boston, New Jersey and now Florida, he also played three seasons with the KHL. Add to that representing the Czech Republic in five different Olympic games, two World Cups of Hockey tournaments and nine World Championships, his career has been somewhat legendary.
Though he only had a one-year contract with the New Jersey Devils for the 2014-15 season, he didn’t seem to have a problem coming to Florida with less than two months left to play. His role was destined to be that of a leader, a mentor and, above all, a play maker. There is no doubt he lived up to all of those, and then some. With line mates Huberdeau and Barkov, Jagr set in motion a true push to the playoffs. Though the Cats fell short, they are in a position to become contenders in 2015-16, especially with Jagr signing on for another year.
“Jaromir is a true professional in every sense of the word and a world-class player,” said Owner Vincent Viola. “This signing further shows our commitment to building a competitive and winning team in South Florida. In just 20 games, he has become a fan favorite and we look forward to his continued contributions to our organization.”–Florida Panthers Press Release
Although there will undoubtedly be off-season changes, the heart of this team is heavily reliant upon its young talent. With veterans like Jagr, Jussi Jokinen and Willie Mitchell at the helm, this is finally a team that holds the kind of promise that hasn’t been seen in Sunrise for more than a decade. The Panthers will be hoping that they have found the perfect mix of youth and experience; if the last twenty games of this season are any indication, they may be right.