Jaromir Jagr, assigned from Calgary to HC Kladno last Monday, may have reached the terminus of his 1,733-game NHL career. Jagr’s career to this point, however, has defied logic. So maybe the 45-year-old’s ticket to the Czech Republic was not one way.
David Krejci would not be shocked if Jagr booked a round-trip itinerary.
“I don’t know what his plans are — if he’s planning to retire there, or try to come back next year for the NHL,” said Krejci, his fellow Kladno native. “You never know with this guy.”
Krejci was 4 years old when Jagr made his NHL debut for Pittsburgh on Oct. 5, 1990. Now, at 31 years of age, Krejci appeared in his 736th NHL game last Thursday against St. Louis. That would not even mark the halfway point of Jagr’s NHL run.
The boundaries of human performance, therefore, would conclude that Jagr’s NHL marathon has concluded. A knee injury limited Jagr to 22 games this season. The right wing, who scored 16 goals and 30 assists in 82 games for Florida last year, recorded one goal and six helpers this year.
It would have been one thing had Jagr gone lame if the NHL had not progressed from its slug-it-out days of his youth. Even on a bum wheel, Jagr’s strength, hockey sense, and hands could have allowed him to remain a dangerous player amid clogged traffic, sticks buried in backs, and arms draped around torsos.
But Jagr’s knee started to wobble at the same time as the players around him continued their turbocharged acceleration. Even at full health, the 45-year-old would have to keep pace with Pacific Division burners such as Connor McDavid, Clayton Keller, and Brock Boeser. But no compromised skater can expect to compete in the modern league, especially not one with as much gray in his beard as Jagr.
“In today’s NHL, it’s different,” Krejci said. “Back then, he was always so strong. He wasn’t as fast. He was always on top of his game. Now you can see you have so many young guys in the league. They’re fast. It’s not the goal to be spending three hours a day in the gym trying to bigger and stronger. Now you’re just trying to get stronger. Not really big. Just strong and fast. It’s going to be hard to see lots of players play past 40 who are in their 20s now.”
Like most hockey players growing up in the Czech Republic, to say nothing of Kladno, Krejci looked up to Jagr. When Krejci was a boy, Jagr was ripping it up in Pittsburgh alongside Mario Lemieux. The Penguins had other Czech stars: Petr Nedved, Martin Straka, Robert Lang, Jan Hrdina, and Jiri Slegr. None compared to Jagr, the long-haired natural with animal strength to complement feathery hands.
Krejci, drafted in the second round in 2004, wondered whether he’d ever play against Jagr in the NHL. By 2006-07, Krejci’s first pro season, Jagr would be 34 years old, perhaps on the limits of a normal player’s NHL mortality.
Instead, Jagr was hitting his second stride — transitioning, with the Rangers, from moody superstar to aging eccentric. He wasn’t perfect. Jagr clashed with, among others, ex-Bruin and then-Ranger Aaron Ward. But Jagr was not as hazardous to coaches’ health like he was in Washington, his previous stop.
“Well, I got fired, so . . . ” cracked Bruce Cassidy, who didn’t even reach the halfway point of his second season in Washington before being sacked. “I’m not blaming it on him, by the way.”
Cassidy was only 37 when he assumed command of the Capitals in 2002. Jagr was 30, already a legend. The two did not always see eye to eye.
“For me as a young guy, he was a lot of maintenance in terms of communicating what he needed,” Cassidy said. “Probably much better equipped to handle that now, but at the time . . . I liked Jags. I liked talking hockey with him. The issue with him was some days he liked to talk hockey, and I had trouble figuring out when was the appropriate time to talk to him about stuff like that. He has passion for the game and a knowledge for the game. No doubt. Loved it. But there were some days it was tough. That’s just the way it was. I think most coaches would echo that — that he required a certain level of maintenance. Yet he produced for us. There was good and bad.”
In Kladno, Jagr will literally run the show. He owns the team. Kladno is currently in the second division, not in the top-tier Extraliga. But Krejci expects the club will sell out for the rest of the year. Jagr remains that starry of a celebrity.
“I didn’t even know I would ever play against him. I thought he might be retired or something,” Krejci said. “But I got a chance to play with him here a little bit, at the Olympics, played against him a bunch of times. That was pretty cool. I remember the first time I played against him, I think he played for the Rangers. It was at home. It was a cool experience. Fast forward 10, 11, 12 years, he’s still playing at a top level. Maybe not for the next following months. But for the players playing against him in the second division, they’re not good enough to be in the top league. But they get to play against one of the best players in the game. It’s going to be a pretty cool experience.”
Krejci does not know what is in Jagr’s future. He is certain it is not a path he will follow.
“No,” Krejci said with a smile of playing for 14 more years. “Not a chance.”
Bruins employ T-intersection
Sean Kuraly is a regular penalty-killing forward. On a standard five-on-four kill, Kuraly’s primary responsibility is to deny the seam pass to a one-timing specialist. Think Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos, and Patrik Laine.
But part of Kuraly’s job is also to hound the bumper in the middle of the ice. It’s a lot of space for one man to cover two threats. There’s a reason penalty killers consider themselves shorthanded.
“You’ve got to have a stick here,” said Kuraly, mimicking placement to block off the seam pass, “and also keep an eye on who’s behind you. It’s a tough job. You’ve got to go back and forth. You can’t just be like, ‘OK, this is my job.’ It’s like, ‘I’m here, but I know that he’s there, and I’ve got to take a look at where he is and be ready to move my stick if something happens.’ It’s a tough job.”
No team wants to cede a cross-ice pass. The toughest save for a goalie to make is when he has to move sideways to get in front of a one-timer. Years ago, with Tomas Kaberle and Bryan McCabe, the Maple Leafs excelled at executing short-range cross-ice plays on the man advantage for backdoor tap-ins.
The direct cross-ice pass to the far post, however, is relatively straightforward to defend. If it’s a five-on-four power play, a passer from one side has to slip the puck through the defensemen’s sticks. If the goalie believes a poke check is a higher-percentage play than pushing from side to side and anticipating the shot, that’s a third stick to negotiate.
Power plays have adjusted to incorporate diagonal seam passes to put the puck in their best shooter’s wheelhouse. Washington has a deadly setup: John Carlson at the point, Nicklas Backstrom on the right half-wall, and Ovechkin at the left elbow.
If penalty killers give Carlson and Backstrom room to work, the skilled attackers will regularly place the puck just as Ovechkin likes. Before a goalie can blink, Ovechkin will smoke the puck past his head. Sprinkle in the middle threat of T.J. Oshie as the bumper, and you can understand why opposing coaches run their penalty-killing meetings longer than usual when preparing for the Capitals.
In the Bruins’ terminology, the most efficient method of discouraging such seam passes is to place a forward at what they call the T-intersection in the high slot. The best scoring chances happen in the home plate area directly in front of the net. But for penalty killers, the T-intersection is arguably just as important to patrol. On the power play, the T-intersection is a critical transfer area for pucks to travel through en route to a dangerous situation.
Torey Krug (point), Ryan Spooner (right half-boards), and David Pastrnak (left elbow) are a tick below their Washington counterparts. Not many have produced consistently on a long-term basis like Carlson, Backstrom, and Ovechkin. But because Pastrnak owns a very good one-timer, getting the puck cleanly on his stick is the Bruins’ go-to look.
“Any time we can get Krug to Spooner through the seam to Pasta, that’s our No. 1 option,” said Bruce Cassidy. “Or in to the bumper to [Patrice Bergeron], I guess. Those are our 1A and 1B. You want to avoid that seam pass, because most teams on the tops of the circles — we’ll call them the elbow, flanks, everyone uses their own terminology — have a guy that can crank it by the goalie if he gets it through there. Or at least force the goalie to get across in a hurry. That’s what that does — cutting that pass off, keeping the puck on one side of the ice. The goaltender would be the first to tell you, ‘At least I know where it is. They might still have the same shot from the top of the circle, but at least I’m not moving to stop it.’ ”
Penalty-killing forwards like Kuraly have other duties. He has to pressure the puck carrier up the ice to deny a clean entry. While reloading in the neutral zone, he needs to read off his partner. In his own zone, Kuraly is tasked to apply pressure on the perimeters. But when the power play sets up in its preferred formation, Kuraly knows that either he or his partner will be marking the T-intersection.
“You always just get there as quick as you can every time,” Kuraly said. “That’s the only way to really be sure: Get there as quick as you can with your stick on the ice every time.”
Fisher’s reentry won’t be easy
In theory, it sounds pretty good. Mike Fisher, who announced last Wednesday that his retirement is temporary, will return as Nashville’s No. 3 center behind Ryan Johansen and Kyle Turris. He finished last season as Nashville’s top pivot after Johansen suffered season-ending acute compartment syndrome in his left leg.
Whether reality will agree with the plan remains to be seen.
Fisher did not limp into retirement. He appeared in 72 games last year, scoring 18 goals and 24 assists while averaging 16:37 of ice time. In the playoffs, Nashville’s former captain punched in zero goals and four assists in 20 appearances, averaging 17:17 of play. In Nashville and Ottawa, Fisher was a confrontational center who threw 216 pounds of beef into the checks he always finished.
Regardless of his pedigree, it has been nearly eight months since Fisher trained like a professional athlete. He is 37 years old. Playing wingman to Carrie Underwood is not ideal preparation for the grinding the Predators are about to face.
“Someone asked me,” Fisher told Nashville reporters, recalling a conversation at the end of last year, “if I’d come back for the playoffs. Not a chance. I would never want to not play a whole season, not go through the grind with the guys, then come in for a few games and play in the playoffs. That was never my intent. Sure enough, here I am.”
The Predators are built for another playoff run. Their three-way trade with Ottawa and Colorado netted them Turris, a second right-shot center to complement Johansen. They signed Nick Bonino and Scott Hartnell for depth. Ryan Ellis, unavailable at the start following knee surgery, is working his way back into Nashville’s top four.
Experienced and sturdy right-shot pivots are always welcome. It was with Fisher’s presence in mind that coach Peter Laviolette, with the endorsement of general manager David Poile, let his former captain know that a job was within his reach if he wanted another crack at the Stanley Cup.
Fisher was enjoying retirement. But like most ex-players, Fisher missed the competition and the camaraderie.
“For 20-something years, you have your schedule handed to you,” Fisher said. “To make your own schedule feels weird. You definitely get antsy at times. You’re used to competition. You’re used to being around the guys all the time. It’s different. Come Christmas, I started to miss the game.”
When Fisher is ready, he will sign a prorated, one-year contract. The question is how much time Fisher will need to carve his body back into NHL shape. His teammates and competitors are grinding through the season because of the off-ice investments they made in the summer. Fisher does not have such a savings account. He’ll have to make immediate profits, so to speak, on the ice and in the gym. It won’t be easy.
Ducks without Gibson
It was odd and risky that John Gibson tried to play through a second-period injury during Anaheim’s 3-1 win over the Bruins last Tuesday. Gibson, who kept checking his right ankle, finished out the period before ceding the crease to Ryan Miller. With Gibson day to day, the Ducks had to recall Reto Berra from San Diego, their AHL affiliate. Miller can take over short term, but the Ducks are fighting for every point to stay ahead of the Kings among the top three in the Pacific. Gibson might have been better off leaving the ice immediately.
Martin out of the picture
Every team would love to have Matt Martin. The Toronto widebody does not back down from anybody. He tramples opponents who get in his way. Anders Bjork bore a temporary Maple Leaf logo on his face when he ran into Martin. But Toronto made Martin a healthy scratch for four straight games, starting with its 3-2 win over Chicago on Jan. 24. The strongman is the latest example of a wrecking ball who now has to fight for ice time. Speed and hands rule, not physical play.
Ryan McDonagh, signed through 2019 at $4.7 million annually, is a good example of the left-shot defenseman the Bruins would like. The 28-year-old Rangers captain would help in all situations. But given his performance, character, and value, the price would be astronomical: at least a young NHL player, prospect, and first-round pick — too high for the Bruins’ liking . . . Erik Karlsson looked awfully comfortable in Tampa during All-Star Weekend. The Ottawa captain would be an ideal acquisition for the Lightning’s Cup run. The Senators, facing the rotten situation of Karlsson walking for nothing after next year, could accelerate their rebuild by landing Brayden Point and futures from the Lightning . . . Props to Travis Zajac for challenging Radko Gudas on Feb. 1. Gudas had knocked out Kyle Palmieri earlier with a flying check. Zajac isn’t a fighter, but the Devils alternate captain sent a gloves-off message . . . Fish a quarter from your pocket and give it a flip. You now know how it feels to determine the outcome of a goaltender interference challenge.
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.