PHILADELPHIA -- After three years in Russia – playing in the southwestern Siberian city of Omsk, just north of Kazakhstan – Jaromir Jagr had lots of questions as he explored returning to the NHL as a free agent.
Jagr had a big question for Philadelphia Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren: Why did you just trade Mike Richards, the team captain, and Jeff Carter, another cornerstone centerman? Holmgren said he explained the Flyers needed size on the wing and had emerging young players like Claude Giroux. Jagr had to ask a follow-up: Giroux who?
"He didn't even know who Claude was," Holmgren said. "But I think he knows him now."
Six months later, Jagr and Giroux have become one of hockey's most dynamic duos. They will be on display Monday when the Flyers face the New York Rangers in the Winter Classic, the NHL's annual outdoor showcase.
Jagr is the legend at right wing, Giroux the rising star at center. Jagr is 39, about to turn 40 on Feb. 15; Giroux is 23, about to turn 24 on Jan. 12. Jagr ranks ninth all-time in NHL scoring; Giroux ranks second this season. While Jagr has helped Giroux reach new heights, Giroux has helped Jagr recapture his old form.
"I think everybody thinks about the game a certain way, and then there's a few people – a few select people – who think about the game in a different way," Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said. "They just think a little bit differently, and I truly think that Claude and Jaromir think on the same level."
This marriage has worked out better than anyone could have imagined.
Jagr had a decision to make. He could have signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins, where he began his career in 1990-91 and won two Stanley Cups with Mario Lemieux. Or he could have gone to the Detroit Red Wings, another successful, skilled team.
He upset both teams the way he and his agent handled the process, dragging it out, disappearing for a while, creating a market and signing with someone else. Jagr especially alienated Penguins fans, who wanted to welcome him home as a prodigal son but watched him join their bitter rivals instead. They booed him every time he touched the puck Thursday night when he returned to Pittsburgh (and scored and saluted).
But maybe the Flyers were the best fit from a hockey standpoint. Jagr might have clicked with Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, but Crosby has missed all but eight games with a concussion this season and Malkin has been a monster with James Neal on his right wing. Jagr might have clicked with Pavel Datsyuk or Henrik Zetterberg, but would he have been better off than he is in Philly? Remember that the Flyers also gave him a one-year, $3.2 million contract, paying him more than the others offered.
"I think we had a player for Jagr to play with – Giroux," Flyers senior vice president Bobby Clarke said. "Jagr is a brilliant player. He needs players on the ice with him who can think like him, and he and Giroux can really think the game together. I don't think Jagr's a player that you put two poor players with and expect him to carry them. He's past that. He's too old for that. Him and Giroux, they're as good as any two in the league."
Jagr and Giroux skated together from Day 1. It was more experiment than grand plan.
"You have to start somewhere," Laviolette said. "I don't think it was set in stone when Jaromir signed here. 'Wow, this is going to be a match made in heaven.' I don't think you know that until players actually get together. They spend time together, and they develop a chemistry or they don't develop a chemistry."
Jagr and Giroux developed a chemistry.
When Jagr left the NHL after the 2007-08 season, Giroux was just coming out of junior hockey. While Jagr was playing in Russia, Giroux was establishing himself in the NHL. His numbers increased every season – in goals, from nine to 16 to 25; and in points, from 27 to 47 to 76. He shined in the Flyers' run to the 2010 Stanley Cup final, and he was their best player in the 2011 playoffs. He was special. He was developing rapidly.
Jagr said it showed in their first practice together.
"Don't forget," Jagr said. "I played 20 years in this league. I can kind of sense who is good, who is not."
Jagr saw the way Giroux skated. He saw the way he passed – often not even looking at his target, just knowing innately where to go with the puck. Jagr learned that he had to be ready at all times, because the puck could come at any time. He started comparing the 5-foot-11 Giroux to the 6-4 Lemieux, calling him a mini-Mario.
The two were soon in sync – where to go, when to go there, how to support each other, how to create space.
Jagr showed Giroux how to adjust.
"We try to make sure we're on the same page," Giroux said. "It's funny, because every time we play a new team, he kind of switches his game, and that's why he performs pretty much every night, because he can change."
The Flyers won't say it, but a big reason they traded Richards and Carter was because of the dynamic in the dressing room. They didn't like the direction the team was heading. Some critics – ahem – wondered why they would add Jagr and his notoriously flaky personality to the mix after that. But Jagr has impressed with his preparation and work ethic, and that has only enhanced the strong habits Giroux already had.
"We watched this guy growing up, and it's like, 'Holy man, this guy is on our team,' and, 'Oh my gosh, this guy's on our line,' " said Scott Hartnell, who skates on their left wing. "I'm still shocked by it, but he wants to be the best player that's ever played. He makes me practice better. He makes G practice better. He wants to score goals all the time. We try to be the best line on the ice every night."
Often, they are. Jagr has 12 goals and 31 points in 32 games, producing at about the pace he was before he left the NHL. Giroux has 17 goals and 45 points – one off the league lead, even though he missed four games with a concussion – on pace to shatter his career highs. Hartnell has 17 goals and 34 points himself, on pace to shatter his career highs, too.
Clarke was asked if he was surprised how much talent Jagr had left. He just smiled and turned the attention to Giroux.
"Maybe Jagr was surprised he had that much talent," Clarke said.
Jagr knows now, and now he fully understands the answer to his original question.
"Obviously with the departure of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, [Giroux] was looked upon to kind of take the reins," Flyers center Danny Briere said. "He certainly is living up to that."