The Calgary Flames rolled the dice in the 2017-18 season in an effort to find some forward depth. Seeking a bit of additional offensive oomph, the club signed 45-year-old free agent Jaromir Jagr.
The second-highest scoring player in National Hockey League history, Jagr was expected to add some scoring to the Flames’ bottom two forward lines. He played just 22 games with the club and only scored one goal, but he’s ended up having a big impact on the team’s ongoing success.
Rubbing Off On His Linemates
During his tenure with the Flames, Jagr spent the majority of his time on a line with a pair of young forwards: winger Sam Bennett and center Mark Jankowski. The fourth overall selection in the 2o14 NHL Draft, Bennett had bounced between center and left wing as a young pro but hadn’t quite lived up to the promise that he had as a junior star. The Flames’ top pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, Jankowski was finally becoming a big-league player after a four years in college and a season in the American Hockey League.
The trio didn’t have amazing results immediately, and their performance during that the 2017-18 campaign can charitably be called “uneven,” but both players have shown Jagr’s influence throughout the 2018-19 season. Bennett’s shown a great deal of tenacity in his corner battles, but has become much better at using his speed and positioning to angle opposition players into challenging situations and create turnovers in transition.
Meanwhile, the six-foot-four Jankowski has become better at using his size to protect the puck by using a strategy Jagr perfected. As Scott Hartnell remarked in a Sportsnet oral history about #68: “He’s so hard to get off the puck once he gets his huge butt stuck out there in the corner.” Since his time with Jagr, Jankowski has been very effective at using his backside to protect the puck and allow plays to develop around him.
Johnny Gaudreau’s Big Step Forward
If there’s one player that benefited from Jagr’s short tenure with the Flames, it was Johnny Gaudreau. Up until the 2017-18 season, Gaudreau had established himself as a tremendously talented offensive player but someone that was perhaps a notch below the league’s truly elite players.
During his tenure with the Flames, Jagr shared his thoughts on Gaudreau’s potential with then-coach Glen Gulutzan (who related his thoughts to the media):
“He was talking to me about how much he thinks of Johnny (Gaudreau) as a player and his offensive instincts. He’s told him that, and he’s talked to him about his mindset going into games and how he has to think like a top guy and want to win and to do well every shift. That’s one of the challenges for high-end players is that they have to will themselves every shift to get something done, so Jags has talked to him at length about those kind of things.” (from “Jagr’s pep talks seem to be paying dividends for Flames star Gaudreau,” Calgary Sun, 11/24/2017)
Gaudreau had a strong performance in 2017-18, but he’s been flat-out better in 2018-19. He’s been more consistent than in years past, more tenacious on the back-check, and in general the attention to detail in his game has taken a big step forward. He’s far from a perfect player – if that even exists – but he’s increasingly resembling the ever-dangerous Jagr hockey fans saw during the legend’s prime years and finally becoming the elite-level talent Flames fans hoped he’d eventually become.
The Flames Opting for Youngsters
All due respect to Jagr, but he was brought into the Flames organization as a stop-gap measure. The Flames’ young prospects failed to move the needle in 2017’s training camp and so general manager Brad Treliving decided to take a risk by signing the aging legend. The gamble didn’t quite pay off, but it may have influenced the club’s philosophy going forward.
Jaromir Jagr, who took up more dressing room real estate than anyone in Flames lore, is on waivers & will soon need a shipping container to move all his gear overseas where he’ll likely play several years for Kladno, which he owns. I still say it was a worthwhile gamble pic.twitter.com/hlgsvglw4r
— Eric Francis (@EricFrancis) January 28, 2018
The Jagr experiment not quite working out was followed by an off-season where the Flames seemed to say as an organization “Alright, we’ll go with the kids instead.” At a time where replacement-level veterans have been abundant on try-outs in training camps around the league, the Flames used Jagr’s old roster spot to transition Garnet Hathaway into a full-time NHLer and have tried out Austin Czarnik, Dillon Dube and Andrew Mangiapane in their bottom six group. They’ve also used a rotation of three rookie defensemen on the bottom pairing – Rasmus Andersson, Oliver Kylington and Juuso Valimaki – rather than lean on veteran depth in those slots. At the very least, the youth has given the team additional speed at a time where the fastest team often wins close games.
After their flirtation with Jagr, the Flames now seem content to invest in inexpensive young forwards with upside rather than trying to squeeze the last years out of declining veteran role players. It’s a philosophy that might not pay off immediately, but should bear fruit with some time and patience.