Kevin Gorman's Take 5: Five thoughts on Jaromir Jagr and the Penguins
1. Farewell, Jags: Jaromir Jagr's NHL career appeared to come to an end without much fanfare Monday when he cleared waivers, paving his return to play for Kladno in the Czech Republic.
That's not the way one of hockey's all-time greats should go out, but nothing about Jagr's career has been conventional.
Jagr ranks second in NHL history in points (1,921), third in games (1,733) and goals (766) and fifth in assists (1,155) and won two Stanley Cup championships, five scoring titles, three Lester B. Pearson awards, one Hart Trophy and the Masterton.
But he also played for nine teams over 27 seasons, which gave him the reputation as something of a mercenary. What fans forget is that Jagr played the bulk of his career for only three teams – the Penguins, Capitals and Rangers – over his first 18 seasons.
Jagr didn't start bouncing around the league until the age of 39, when most players are long retired.
2. Older than … me: What's amazing, at least to me, is that Jagr is 45 – and only 17 days away from his 46th birthday – which makes him exactly one year and five days older than me.
I've been a sports writer since my days at The Purbalite student newspaper at Baldwin High School, and I was a senior when Jagr made his debut with the Penguins in 1990.
If you are too young to remember Jagr with the Penguins, I'll put it this way: The JuJu Mania over Steelers rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster this past fall was nothing compared to this city's love affair with a teenage Jagr and his magnificent mullet.
When I started covering college sports, I was the same age as the athletes I wrote about. When I started covering pro sports, I was about the same age as most of the athletes I wrote about. But when you hit 40, you're typically older than every athlete. So, it's weird to watch guys younger than you retire.
Jagr was the exception, until now.
3. A second career: If Jagr's tenure with the Penguins seems like a lifetime ago, that's because they traded him to the Washington Capitals in July 2001.
Most NHL players would be thrilled to play 927 games and score 842 points (327 goals and 515 assists) over 16-plus seasons – and that's only Jagr's post-Penguins career statistics.
Jagr scored 439 goals and had 640 assists in 806 games with the Penguins, including 446 points (173 goals, 273 assists) from 1997-2001. That's following Mario Lemieux's initial retirement, when Jagr assumed the mantle as the game's greatest player.
Consider: Sidney Crosby just passed Jagr three days ago for second place in scoring in franchise history.
There's no point in comparing eras, especially when Jagr started his career alongside Lemieux and a more talented cast than Crosby did. But it took Crosby, who had three injury-shortened seasons in his prime, 27 more games than Jagr to surpass 1,079 points – and Crosby has long been considered the world's best player.
But Jagr demanded the trade and then skipped his homecoming.
4. About that...: It's understandable that the Penguins and their fans are still upset that Jagr passed on Lemieux's offer to return and retire with the organization in which he started his career.
It's understandable that the Penguins and their fans are still upset that Jagr signed with the arch-rival Flyers, who knocked the Penguins out of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals in 2012.
What doesn't make sense is the grudge they carry for Jagr taking a better deal. The Penguins offered a one-year, $2-million deal. The Flyers offered a one-year, $3.3-million deal.
That doesn't make Jagr greedy.
It makes him smart.
What made the Penguins look dumb is that then-general manager Ray Shero pulled the offer to Jagr and gave that money to Tyler Kennedy. It looked like a good move at the time, given that Jagr was 39 and out of the NHL since 2008 and Kennedy was only 24 and coming off a 21-goal and 45-point season.
“We made what we thought was a very fair contract offer to Jaromir on Tuesday, based on his stated interest of returning to the Penguins,” Shero said. “We made our best offer from the start, given our salary-cap structure, in an attempt to facilitate a deal. But now, after several days, with an extended time frame for making a decision and additional teams getting involved, we have decided to move in a different direction.”
But Jagr scored 89 points the next two seasons in Philly, while Kennedy scored 44 over that span for the Penguins.
Turns out, Jagr was worth twice as much.
5. Forever a Penguin: The Penguins and their fans should embrace that Jagr is a major part of three banners hanging from the rafters at PPG Paints Arena: Two celebrating Cup championships and another celebrating scoring titles.
It's nice to know that the last time Jagr visited Pittsburgh, Penguins fans gave him an ovation. The next time he returns, it should be to see his No. 68 retired and raised to the rafters.