Nicholas J. Cotsonika’s weekly Three Periods column will appear on Thursdays. This week’s topics include how Jaromir Jagr has improved at age 42 and thinks he still has at least one more gear; the Minnesota Wild remains a work in progress; the NHL’s general managers missed an opportunity to address the aggressor issue at their meetings; and switching ends in overtime might not have the effect the GMs want.
FIRST PERIOD: Jagr is stronger at age 42 – and thinks he can be even better
Jaromir Jagr is playing better now than he did when he returned to the NHL in 2011-12, and get this:
“I still feel like I’ve got one more gear,” he said. “At least.”
Jagr had 19 goals and 54 points in 73 games for the Philadelphia Flyers in 2011-12. He had 16 goals and 35 points in 45 games for the Dallas Stars and the Boston Bruins in 2013, the season shortened by the lockout. Now he has 21 goals and 57 points in 66 games for the New Jersey Devils.
His goals-per-game average has gone from .26 to .35 to .31, and his points-per-game average has gone from .74 to .76 to .86. Meanwhile, his age has gone from 40 to 41 to 42. He has gone from playing on an offensive team in Philly to a defensive team in Jersey – with pit stops as a first-liner in Dallas and a depth player in Boston in between – and he has relied less and less on the power play. His power-play goals have gone from eight to six to three.
After three seasons in Russia and a half-season in the Czech Republic during the lockout, Jagr has readjusted to the smaller ice and faster style in the NHL. He has kept himself in shape with his legendary workout regimen. To the late-night skates and post-game weights, he has added more stretching this season.
“You kind of lose your speed and quickness on the big ice,” Jagr said. “You have to slow everything down. So it takes time. Three years, that’s a lot of time in my age, because body have to adjust, and my body’s pretty adjusted. Of course I think I play better.”
What if Jagr never left for Russia? What if he never had to adjust? He has climbed among the NHL’s all-time leaders, now ranking seventh in goals with 702 and points with 1,745.
“The years I went to Russia, I’d probably score 30 goals a season, so it’s an extra 90,” Jagr said. “I might finish second easily.”
Jagr scored 30 goals in 2006-07 and 25 goals in 2007-08 for the New York Rangers, so averaging 30 goals from 2008-11 wouldn’t have been out of the question. Had he done that, he would have 792 goals right now and need 10 to pass Gordie Howe. He would trail only Wayne Gretzky.
He also produced 96 points and 71 points his last two years with the Rangers. Had he averaged just 48 points from 2008-11, he would rank second only to Gretzky right now.
But there are other factors that skew the NHL’s all-time leader board – the time players like Jagr lost to lockouts, the time Howe spent in the WHA – and Jagr is philosophical about it.
“Everybody knows that you cannot just take the time you miss and somehow say, ‘Oh, yeah, I would do this,’ ” Jagr said. “You never know what would happen if I stay here. So maybe I wouldn’t be playing right now, or maybe I would be even better. It plays with the brain. I don’t want to do it right now. I just did whatever I felt was right for me in that situation.
“In one way, it helped me, because I kind of regrouped myself mentally. It was a change. I probably needed a change. I played less games there. I played different league. When I came back, mentally I was probably more excited about the NHL.”
Jagr is still excited about the NHL. He has four goals and eight points in his past seven games. He scored the game-winning goal in the third period Tuesday night against the Flyers, one of his six game-winners this season. That’s an important stat on a team that plays a lot of close games.
He thinks he can be even better with more training and more time. His contract is up, but he wants one more – at least one more – before he returns to the Czech Republic to play for the Kladno Knights, the team he owns in his hometown.
“I’m not ready to just sit around and do nothing,” Jagr said. “I would just get fat, and I don’t want that. I like to work hard. I would do it anyway not to get fat. If I can still play in the highest level, why not do it? There is nothing telling me not to do it. If nobody wants me, then of course I’ll go back. But if I feel there is at least some interest, I want to keep playing.”
SECOND PERIOD: The Wild has improved but still has work to do in the Central
The NHL is hard. Even when you do things right, it’s hard. The Minnesota Wild has drafted potential stars like Mikael Granlund and Jonas Brodin, signed established stars like Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, and made smart moves. The Wild made the playoffs last season and hold a playoff spot this season.
Still, in the Central Division alone, the Wild is looking up at the Chicago Blackhawks, the defending Stanley Cup champions; the St. Louis Blues, a serious Cup contender; and the Colorado Avalanche, another young team – a team that has leapfrogged them this season.
“Clearly the bar is set pretty high,” said Wild GM Chuck Fletcher. “If we’re not improving, we’ll be in trouble.”
Fletcher keeps improving the Wild step by step. He added Jason Pominville at the trade deadline last year. He added Matt Cooke and Nino Niederreiter in the off-season. He added Ilya Bryzgalov, Cody McCormick and Matt Moulson at the trade deadline this year, giving the Wild insurance in goal, size and toughness, and scoring for the stretch run and the playoffs. With Mikko Koivu healthy, with Granlund growing, the hope is that the Wild is deeper and better – good enough to beat any team on any given day and perhaps in any given series.
“I don’t think we’re that far off from some of the better teams,” Fletcher said.
The Wild has more talent and plays more of a puck-possession style than in the past. Still, the team needs even more talent and needs even more puck possession – and it needs to shoot better, particularly on the back end. Fletcher noted that Minnesota’s defensemen rank among the worst in the NHL in shot attempts, shots on goal and goals scored. That’s a reason the Wild ranks 27th in shots per game (26.9) and 25th in goals per game (2.37).
[Related: Don't expect big changes from GM meetings]
Whatever happens down the stretch and in the playoffs, there will be more moves to make this summer. Dany Heatley, a faded star now on the fourth line, is in the last year of his contract at a cap hit of $7.5 million. Bryzgalov, McCormick, Moulson, Nate Prosser, Mike Rupp and Clayton Stoner are in the last years of their contracts, too. Thomas Vanek, a scoring winger with Minnesota ties, is set to be an unrestricted free agent. But the key will be the kids.
“We’re still an evolving team, and by that I mean we have a lot of players on our team who are 23 years old and younger, and those players are gaining experience and maturing and are improving,” Fletcher said. “Clearly how good we get will probably depend in some part on how quickly those kids mature and gain experience.”
THIRD PERIOD: GMs missed an opportunity to address aggressor issue
Often the NHL’s general managers meet, talk about an idea and then forget about it. Remember the ringette line?
In November, in the wake of the Ray Emery-Braden Holtby incident, they said they wanted to do something about goalie fights because of the bulky equipment and the risk of injury. They said they would discuss possible solutions in March, maybe an automatic suspension if a goalie leaves his end of the ice to start a fight with another goalie.
And this week … nothing.
It was a missed opportunity – and not because they should have done something about goalie fights. Goalie fights haven’t exactly been a scourge of the league.
The real problem with Emery-Holtby had nothing to do with the fact they were goalies. It was the fact that Emery forced Holtby to fight and kept hitting him the head, and though he broke multiple rules and was penalized in the game, nothing rose to the level of supplemental discipline. That kind of thing doesn’t happen often, either. But when it does, it’s ugly.
Rule 46.2 defines an “aggressor” as a player who “continues to throw punches in an attempt to inflict punishment on his opponent who is in a defenseless position or who is an unwilling combatant.”
The department of player safety considered Holtby a reluctant combatant more than an unwilling combatant, because he did engage Emery initially, if only to defend himself, and did not skate away or turtle. Even if Emery continued to punch Holtby in an attempt to punish him when Holtby was in a defenseless position, Rule 46.17 outlines a suspension scale for aggressors – three times in one regular season gets two games, four times gets four games, five times gets six games.
The GMs could have recommended the elimination of that suspension scale. The rule should state simply that anyone who is deemed an aggressor shall be reviewed for supplemental discipline.
Unless the NHL changed other rules that govern fighting, the DPS probably still wouldn’t suspend someone for winning a lopsided fight, even if he caused an injury. If you fight, you might win, you might lose and you might get hurt. That is the risk you take, and it happens often to varying degrees.
But if someone clearly forces another player to fight like Emery did and keeps pummeling – whether it’s a goalie, a defenseman or a forward – the DPS should have the power to address it. Next time something like that happens, the GMs might regret this.
OVERTIME: Would switching ends in overtime have the impact GMs want?
The GMs tabled the idea of three-on-three overtime. New York Rangers GM Glen Sather even called it “a bit of a pipe dream.” They would rather be subtle than bold and favor switching ends in overtime, hoping the long line change will lead to more mistakes, more OT winners and fewer shootouts.
But how much of an impact would switching ends really have?
This fact was used to support the idea at the meetings: The USHL started switching ends in overtime and saw a 10-percent increase in OT winners.
Well, the NHL has had 109 games end in OT this season. Add 10 percent, and it’s 120, if you round up. The league has had 139 shootouts this season – 14.08 percent of the 987 games played. Subtract 11 shootouts, and it’s 128 – 12.96 percent of the 987 games played. In the nine seasons of the shootout era, the league has been below 12.96 percent four times. It was at 12.11 percent as recently as 2010-11. And the GMs thought that was too much.
Switching ends is a fine idea. It might help a little bit. Scraping the ice before overtime is a fine idea, too. The NHL is going to study it. If it would improve the ice enough to be worth delaying OT a minute or two, by all means, do it.
But if the GMs really want to reduce the number of shootouts to a noticeable degree – and they all say they do – switching ends and scraping the ice might not be enough. They’re going to have to accept the number of shootouts, or they’re probably going to have to reopen the debate about having a few minutes of four-on-four and then a few minutes of three-on-three. Would that work? Would it be worth the longer games? Would it add too many minutes for top players?
“You have to ask the other 29,” said Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland, who has spent years pushing a few minutes of four-and-four and a few minutes of three-on-three. “You’ve got my support.”
SHOOTOUT: Notes from around the NHL
-- The GMs are right when they say expanding video review is more complicated than it sounds. They are right to question how far you can rewind the clock, how far back you can tie cause and effect, how you can remove one play from a free-flowing game. But putting a TV monitor in the penalty box so the referees can review goalie interference should be a no-brainer. If the puck is in the net, the clock is stopped. No rewinding of the clock is necessary. Things happen fast, so let the refs slow down, take a look and make a better judgment.
-- The GMs made a lot of sense of face-offs and kicked-in goals. By widening the hash marks, you eliminate the battling for position. By pushing back the center instead of throwing him out after a violation, you eliminate a lot of delay tactics and create more of a disadvantage for cheating. It should make draws cleaner and quicker, and it might create more scoring chances. As for kicked-in goals, you can already direct in the puck with your skate. You just can’t make a “distinct kicking motion.” So you should be able to use your skate to put in the puck as long as you keep your blade on the ice. It’s more liberal. It’s more black-and-white. It’s just as safe.
-- Jagr, on Devils GM Lou Lamoriello’s approach to the deadline: “I don’t think Lou wanted to trade anybody. Lou’s the kind of guy, he’s going to fight to the end. I kind of like it.” The Devils are among the teams fighting for a wild-card spot in the East. Are they a potential dark horse? “The way we play, we are hard team to play against,” Jagr said. “I think we’re going to be even harder in the playoffs if we make it. No matter who we play against, it’s going to be tight, one-goal difference either way. That kind of game suits the playoffs. We might be very dangerous team in playoffs if we make it.”
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