With most of the excitement of the NHL’s draft and free agency season behind us, the offseason now gives way to the long, largely uneventful summer months as fans wait for training camp to open. Ray Shero and the Devils have made some clear improvements over the past few months, most notably selecting Nico Hischier first overall at the 2017 NHL Draft and trading for top-six caliber forward Marcus Johansson from the Capitals, but holes still remain in this roster. The biggest is on defense, where regardless of the moves they make, the team will likely be thin in their top-four, but the other area of obvious need is at right wing.
Gerard hit on this point last week and the idea remains: the Devils just don't have much in the way of players who are dedicated right wingers. Behind Kyle Palmieri, the situation is largely a question mark outside of Stefan Noesen penciling into the bottom six and internal options are somewhat limited to resolve that issue. They can shift Johansson to his off wing, put a rookie center prospect like Michael McLeod on the right side, or rely on someone like a Nick Lappin to fill a role likely a bit over his abilities. In a pinch, those are reasonable options to plug a hole, but going into a season with one of those three options being your Plan A for a top-six right wing spot feels like a recipe for some trouble. Luckily for the Devils, there is a player available who could fill that top-six role.
As you may have gathered from the obvious title of this post, the player I’m talking about hails from the Czech Republic, was born sometime around Napoleon’s conquest of Europe (approximately), and has the second most points in NHL history. Yes, Jaromir Jagr is a player the Devils should be looking to sign if they have any ambitions about being competitive this season. I believe he fits the Devils’ needs better than any free agent out there, and while he isn’t any kind of long term solution, he would make the Devils better and deeper for 2017-18.
So what is the reasoning behind signing a 45-year-old player to a team in a still-ongoing rebuild? Simply put, he makes them better right now and requires zero commitment long term. The Devils have a need at right wing, and he is hands-down the best one available at this point. And this summer, Ray Shero has made it clear that he doesn’t really want to offer term to any players if he can avoid it, making a guy like Jagr, who wouldn’t command anything past one year, ideal.
Jagr’s numbers slipped a little bit in 2016-17, but he was still a very effective player overall and a lot of his drop in output can be traced to his shooting percentage dropping a full 10% compared to the year prior (his 8.8% shooting was a career low). His 46 points would have been good for third on the Devils last season, behind only Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri. Perhaps more importantly, he scores at even strength, with his 33 ES points putting him tied with Kyle Palmieri and behind only Taylor Hall when compared to Devils players in 2016-17.
Jagr also consistently drives possession, which has been a major issue for New Jersey for three seasons now. Jagr is obviously old and no one would mistake him for fast at this point, but he does things that the Devils have often lacked with his ability to protect the puck and maintain possession and then distribute it creatively. If you’re relying on Jagr to carry you, that likely won’t go well at this stage of his career, but if you put him in a second line role with some linemates who are able to benefit from how he sees the game, he could be a major asset and a difference maker for a team like the Devils who are thin at the position he plays. I mean, just take a look at his HERO chart for a quick idea of how effective he still is:
Many people are worried that he won’t be able to keep up with the (ostensibly) fast team the Devils are trying to put together, but if you can look at the chart above and say the Devils couldn’t use a guy like that on the right side this season, I think you’re kidding yourself a little bit. Speed is objectively a good thing and it’s important in today’s NHL, but I think it’s important to not get obsessed with the notion that every single guy needs to be fast to have good team speed. Miles Wood has fantastic speed but I’m pretty sure you are better off having Jagr on your second line than a guy like Wood or (using an example at RW) Nick Lappin, even if their straight-line speed is much better than the old man. Jagr has the kind of hockey mind that is rarely seen and based on the past five-plus years of his career, he knows how to be effective without having speed to back up his game.
Beyond the strictly hockey reasons, which I think are justification enough to sign him, I am also very much on board with the peripheral benefits of signing Jagr. Lest we forget from his first stint in New Jersey, Jagr is an utter joy to have around a hockey team. And while he won’t have Dainius Zubrus to roast in postgame interviews anymore, I’m confident he’d still be a lot of fun, which is something that a fanbase enduring a five-year postseason drought could use. Plus, with Lou Lamoriello no longer at the helm in New Jersey, we could experience a properly-mulleted Jagr this go around. Also, with the Devils redesigning their uniforms this gives the Traveling Jagrs another jersey to add to their collection.
Even if things don’t work out great, or the team ends up stinking out loud regardless, there is the added opportunity to flip Jagr at the deadline. As one might recall from the last time he was in NJ, Jagr brought back the picks that turned into Kyle Palmieri in a trade, so he can be a worthwhile hockey asset, even if the Devils remain disconnected from the playoff picture. Put this together with the benefits for the team on the ice and the associated whimsy that comes with having Jagr with any organization, and it feels like a bit of a no-brainer. Perhaps that’s just my wishful thinking, but I really do think this makes a lot of sense for New Jersey. So make it happen, Ray. Join me on the Jagr crazy train.