The New York Rangers face off against the Philadelphia Flyers tonight, and there’s a lot of attention being given to it for multiple reasons. Both teams are the center of the hockey world right now because of their participation in HBO’s 24/7 and their eventual Winter Classic battle. Both teams are at the top of the standings and look to be contenders.
But one thing that might be getting lost in the shuffle is that Jaromir Jagr will be returning to Madison Square Garden and playing against the Rangers tonight for the first time since he left the Rangers to play in Russia. It’s somewhat odd to be commemorating someone who played three and a half seasons for a team that had very little playoff success, but anyone who watched the transformation of the New York Rangers during his tenure knows how important he was to turning this franchise around.
The Rangers missed the playoffs for seven straight years from 1998-2004. During that time they were the laughingstock of the NHL, bringing in all sorts of big-name players who didn’t live up to expectations and handing out bloated contracts. Jaromir Jagr fit that mold and was perceived as a typical Glen Sather acquisition. Jagr was underachieving with the Washington Capitals and became disgruntled. Washington basically handed him to the Rangers, eating part of his salary and taking back Anson Carter, who was essentially irrelevant. During The Purge right before the lockout, Jaromir Jagr was a complete afterthought.
Which then brings us to the 2005-2006 season. All of the “experts” predicted the Rangers to be at the bottom of the standings, if not the worst team altogether. Glen Sather himself admitted that making the playoffs was not his focus for the season. But Jaromir Jagr had other ideas and promised that the Rangers would prove everybody wrong. Jagr started the season with 10 goals in his first 9 games, becoming only the fourth player in NHL history to reach that mark before the 10th game of the season, and did not slow down after that. Jaromir Jagr finished the season second in the NHL in goals with 54, and that mark broke Adam Graves’ previous Rangers’ record of 52 goals in a single season. He finished second in points as well with 123, also a team record. He won the Pearson Award, given to the MVP as voted by the players.
The kind of season he had is not one you can appreciate purely by looking at statistics, though. Jagr made that promise to help the Rangers get into the playoffs and in a fashion Mark Messier would appreciate willed the Rangers to a 5th seed in the Eastern Conference, shocking the whole hockey world. Most teams match lines and players to counter the specific threats on other teams, but the opposition went above and beyond that against Jagr. He would face double teams and sometimes even triple teams in the offensive zone, but that was still ineffective. There are rare periods of time in sports where an individual player becomes absolutely invincible. This is how Michael Jordan spent most of his career. This was Pedro Martinez in the late 90′s. For the 2005-2006 season, this was Jaromir Jagr. It didn’t matter who or how many players you had shadow him. It didn’t matter who was in net. Jaromir Jagr was going to get the puck above the faceoff circles. Jaromir Jagr was going to launch a shot from there. Everybody on the ice new this. Every coach new this. Everybody watching on TV new this. But it didn’t matter, because Jaromir Jagr was going to do what he wanted and he was going to do damage in the process.
Jagr separated his shoulder in the first round of the playoffs against the Devils and the series was basically over at that point. Jagr was not quite at that level for his next two seasons as a Ranger but he did put up 96 and 71 points respectively. The Rangers would reach the second round of the playoffs in those seasons but never could get to that next level. In the summer of 2008, Jagr and the Rangers mutually agreed to go in a new direction. Jagr signed with Avangard Omsk in Russia and the Rangers started a new era. For Jagr, that has led him to eventually returning and signing with the Flyers. For the Rangers, it has resulted in being the competitive team we are right now.
Jagr spent three relevant seasons here and at face value the team did not accomplish much. But to truly appreciate what Jaromir Jagr did for this organization you needed to experience it. You needed to experience the seven years of pathetic hockey. The seven years of missing the playoffs. The seven years of seeing all sorts of names come to the organization only to leave as a failure. The seven years of being the biggest joke in the National Hockey League. You needed to experience living in a black hole with seemingly no way out. But a way out is what number 68 gave us. The 2005-2006 team had a lot of help from players like Michael Nylander, Martin Straka, Petr Prucha and Henrik Lundqvist. But it was Jaromir Jagr who made the fans, the players, and management believe that the New York Rangers could and would return to being the proud franchise it should be. So while he is now playing for our rivals in Philadelphia, let’s please remember the contributions Jaromir Jagr made to this organization and give him the acknowledgement and thanks he deserves.