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Kovacevic: Bring back Jaromir Jagr

| Wednesday, June 22, 2011

If Jaromir Jagr gets his wish and returns to the Penguins, it could represent one of the more remarkable comeback stories in Pittsburgh sports history: A first-ballot Hall of Famer gives the NHL one last try with his original team, fits right in with a revitalized Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, then raises the Stanley Cup just as he did here as a teenager.

Am I dreaming?

Well, yeah, of course.

For one, even though Jagr's agent, Petr Svoboda, has made known his client's approach to the Penguins — as reported by the Tribune-Review's Rob Rossi for Tuesday's editions — the Detroit Red Wings and a mystery team are in the mix, too.

For another, it takes two to strike a deal. Tuesday night in Las Vegas, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma called Jagr's current level of play "outstanding" and described his possible addition as an "intriguing thing." That sounds like thick interest. But until general manager Ray Shero puts money behind that, it's hard to fully gauge how strongly they feel.

I know how I feel right now: Bring back 68.

And not for sentimentality. Not because it will rebuild bridges that never should have been burned. Not because cheers would replace the irrational booing of the man whose amazing 1999 playoff performance essentially kept the bankrupt Penguins' business afloat. Not even because it would bring similarly scintillating sequels for the franchise's two greatest players, Mario Lemieux and Jagr. (Sorry, Sid. Not yet.)

No, I'd like to see Jagr back primarily for what he could do for the 2011-12 Penguins.

Sure, he'll turn 40 next February, and he is a far different player from that one-on-one demon we recall as an MVP and five-time scoring champion. He adapted his style several years ago in New York to that of a stationary gunner and power-play quarterback. But he adapted brilliantly: In 2005-08 with the Rangers, his last three NHL seasons, he never missed a game and had 290 points, including 122 on the power play. In Russia's Kontinental Hockey League the past three years, Jagr remained a point-a-game producer.

Remember power-play goals?

Jagr still can work the half-wall as well as anyone in hockey, both from a shooting and passing standpoint. And if you don't think that's the Penguins' greatest need going into next season, then we weren't watching the same team these past few months.

I understand skepticism. Fans were excited about Alexei Kovalev returning at age 38 in February, only to see Zbynek Michalek outscore him and just about everyone outwork him. But this is different.

I watched Jagr up close just last year at the Olympics in Vancouver, and he was nothing less than the tournament's best forward in the early going. Still had those tree-trunk legs churning. Still had the devastating finish. Still saw the whole ice. He faded some, then was crushed on an open-ice check by Alex Ovechkin, punishment for skating through the middle with his head down. Even so, on a Czech team loaded up front, the "old man," as Jagr jokingly called himself, stood tallest.

At the World Championships in Slovakia last month, Jagr registered a hat trick against the United States, including a breathtaking rink-length rush.

I asked Chris Johnston, the Canadian Press reporter on the scene in Bratislava, to share his view.

"He remains a strong man and, while far from speedy, still has a knack for being in the right place on the ice," Johnston said. "I'm confident he'd still be of use on a NHL power play, at the very least. And my impression after speaking with him there is that he's still very driven to play. His off-ice work ethic borders on legendary."

No surprise, considering Jagr used to say here that he'd play until he was 50.

And that's the other difference: He has grown up. Gone is that mullet-haired teen who collected speeding tickets, the 25-year-old with the giant gambling debt, and the man-child who bought his ticket out of town by declaring he was "dying alive" during a scoring slump. In recent years, he has shaken the hands of presidents, called news conferences in Prague to announce political endorsements and served as the Czechs' flag-bearer at Vancouver's opening ceremonies.

Does that sound like an immature brat?

Some might wonder if he could handle playing second or third fiddle in Pittsburgh. The way I see it, if he finds extra motivation in wanting to perform in the Crosby/Malkin stratosphere, hey, great. If he finds extra motivation in wanting to add to his legacy in Pittsburgh and in the NHL, that's fine, too.

Few things in hockey history have been more entertaining than a motivated Jagr.

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