One day very soon, Jaromir Jagr will play his first game as a member of the Calgary Flames.
He says he wants to practise a while before suiting up. Perhaps that will be alongside Sam Bennett and Kris Versteeg on the third line. Maybe he’ll get some looks on the first team powerplay. In his debut, he might score a goal, or set up an assist, force a big save, or miss the net altogether. He might take one of those newly popular slashing penalties, or be on the receiving end of an infraction.
Truth is, we don’t really know what to expect on the ice. He’s got to be an upgrade over current third-line right-winger Troy Brouwer, and he might even fill in on the top line if Micheal Ferland’s play hits any rough patches. But there are no guarantees as to how the 45-year-old is going to perform after months without organized practices or games of any kind.
There is another side to hockey to consider, though. The mental part that so often influences outcomes. The newest member of the Flames could play as big a role in that department as he will on the ice.
We’ll call it the Jagr Effect.
The move has already created a buzz of enthusiasm and anticipation in the locker room that was obvious as reporters went from stall to stall talking and laughing with players about Jagr earlier this week. The media members were feeling it again when the living legend landed in town as the rest of the team was up north in Edmonton getting ready for their season opener on Wednesday.
General manager Brad Treliving made a statement by investing in Jagr, telling his team he believes they can compete for the Stanley Cup this year. The mere presence of the NHL’s second all-time scoring leader will boost the group’s confidence and could trickle down to the individual level, says Dave Paskevich — a sport psychologist who consulted for the Flames for a couple of seasons a few years back.
“Jagr as a player has a swagger to him. He’s made his money and he’s done everything in hockey. He doesn’t need to play – there’s a passion there,” Paskevich said. “When you see that in a locker room, it can be infectious.
“Instead of getting nervous or anxious in a high-pressure situation, the young players can look at him and know, ‘We’ve got this.’ He’s got a history of performing well in those situations.”
Make no mistake, Jagr was brought in as much for his mentorship abilities on a team that will be led on the ice by its youth as he was for the 16 goals and 46 points he contributed in a top line role with the Florida Panthers last season. He was coached briefly in Dallas by current Flames bench boss Glen Gulutzan, and Flames management did some homework during a long courtship.
“His work ethic and the way he handles himself as a pro, that’s just going to help our young guys,” Flames assistant GM Craig Conroy told reporters when Jagr was introduced on Wednesday. “I hope he’s going to be a demanding guy and he expects a lot out of our young guys. If he can help them, that’s the key.”
There is always an element of risk when tinkering with group dynamics. The minute you make an addition or subtraction, you change that dynamic beyond just the cohesion on the ice, says Paskevich.
“Socially, adding someone new could be negative — for example, if he takes the job of someone that’s popular.”
In this case, it’s hard to imagine the team is too dedicated to the dressing room presence of Garnet Hathaway or Freddie Hamilton, and the demotion of popular rookie-to-be Mark Jankowski is felt more by the fans than the NHL group. And no one will argue that Jagr on a line with breakout candidate Bennett is anything less than a massive upgrade over big Brouwer on Bennett’s flank.
That Bennett/Brouwer combination didn’t work well last year, and Bennett regressed from a promising 18-goal, 36-point rookie season to a 13-goal, 26-point effort as a sophomore in 2016-17. Jagr was a mentor on a line with Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau with the Florida Panthers for parts of the last three seasons and has helped that duo become one of the most promising offensive tandems under the age of 25. (Jagr noted on Wednesday that they’re still younger than him even if you add their ages together.)
He may claim that their enthusiasm is what energized him as a 40-plus player. The Flames, though, are banking on his company paying off on a roster that already has some solid and established veteran leaders like Mark Giordano (and, yes, Matt Stajan and Brouwer).
“I think the risk seems minimal,” said Paskevich. “If Jagr isn’t happy with the role he’s given, it can get a little dicey. That can create some tension. But from what I know about Jagr, I’m not concerned.
“The fit seems excellent.”
If it turns out that way, we’ll see the results of the off-ice Jagr Effect translating into on-ice success.