All hail the mighty Jaromir Jagr

On October 5, 1990, the world was a much different place. The movies Miller’s Crossing (a Coen Brothers classic), Avalon (a decent Barry Levinson flick), Marked for Death (a Steven Seagal epic) and Henry and June (the first film to get a NC-17 rating) were released. The #1 song in the U.S. that week was “Close to You” by Maxi Priest and the top album was MC Hammer’s Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em (in the 17th of its 21 chart-topping weeks!). And that day also marked the first NHL game played by one Jaromir Jagr, then an 18-year-old rookie straight out of Kladno, Czechoslovakia.

Now, a quarter century later, Czechoslovakia is split into two countries (Czech Republic and Slovakia), and the new Star Wars movie and Adele are conquering the pop culture landscape, but Jagr is still going strong. About six weeks away from his 44th birthday, Jagr recently passed Marcel Dionne on the NHL’s all-time goal scoring list with his 732nd tally, leaving him behind only Wayne Gretzky (894), Gordie Howe (801) and Brett Hull (741). Currently sitting at 1,827 career points (as of this writing), he’s also fourth in total points behind Gretzky (2,857), Mark Messier (1,887) and Howe (1,850).

jagr card

On the season, Jagr leads the Florida Panthers in scoring with 25 points in 33 games (10-15) and not coincidentally, the Panthers are in a battle for the Atlantic division lead, just a point behind Montreal. The team has won six straight and Jagr is showing the way, even as he deals with indignities like losing his four front teeth to a high stick last week (he was patched up and returned to play, natch).

It’s strange to think of Jagr as an elder statesman. For so long, he seemed like the electrifying young buck on the Penguins, playing with veteran stars like Mario Lemieux and Ron Francis and racking up the points while his trademark mullet fluttered in his wake. Jagr came of age in the go-go early ‘90s, when there was plenty of offense and not much in the way of defense in the NHL. Even after Mario retired (the first time) and the New Jersey Devils popularized the neutral zone trap, Jagr kept leading the league in scoring. It wasn’t until he was shipped off to Washington that his point totals dipped into the 70s, but he bounced back with a monster 54-goal, 123-point season for the Rangers the year after the last season-eliminating lockout.

Jagr had two more solid seasons in New York before inexplicably bolting in 2008 for the KHL, where he played three seasons with Avangard Omsk (actually, he said he went to be closer to his family, but he soon grew tired of the smaller crowds). He returned to the NHL in 2011 with the Flyers, where he played a season before yet another lockout forced the league to play an abbreviated 48-game season in 2012-13; Jagr split the season between Dallas and Boston, where he contributed to the team’s run to the Final, grew some Wolverine-style mutton chops and named himself as his favorite player. His last two seasons were spent with the Devils before moving on to the Panthers this year.

jagr fave player

As impressive as his scoring totals are, it’s fun to think about what they could have been had it not been for three work stoppages and his own decision to go to Russia for three years. Puck Daddy recently estimated where Jagr would rank had he not had those interruptions to his NHL career and came up with 852 goals (just 42 behind the Great One’s record) and 2,174 points (second to Gretzky but with no chance of approaching him). Boggles the mind, don’t it?

At any rate, Jagr continues to plug away productively for Florida, working well with the club’s young up-and-comers like Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov. He’s not the player he once was, especially in the speed department, but he’s still near impossible to knock off the puck and his passing remains impeccable.

How long can he keep playing in the NHL? A year ago, Jagr said he could play until he was 50 barring injury, but he amended that recently to say he wasn’t necessarily saying he could stick in the NHL until 50. Gordie Howe played until he was 52, but of late the closest anyone has come is Chris Chelios, who was 48 when he played his last NHL game in 2010. It’s a huge challenge, but at this point, who’s going to bet against Jagr?

It’s going to be fun watching this team fight for a playoff spot down the stretch, what with Jagr, the young stars and Roberto “Pump My Tires” Luongo in net. Hell, Jagr’s even growing his legendary mullet back. It doesn’t get much better than that, unless he’s somehow able to lead Florida to the Stanley Cup. THAT would be the icing on the bemulleted cake right there.

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After years of futility, are the Oilers finally competitive again?

Editor’s note: Cold As Ice correspondent Phil Stacey looks at the Edmonton Oilers’ unexpected hot streak.

What in the name of Willy Lindstrom is going on with the Edmonton Oilers?

Reduced to Dollar Store status by many in the hockey world after rookie wunderkind Connor McDavid injured his collarbone Nov. 3 against the Flyers and word came down he’d be out of action at least two months, the suddenly resurgent Oilers have won six straight. The latest in that surprising streak: a 3-2 overtime triumph against the Bruins Monday night in Boston, where they hadn’t won since 1996.

oilers logo

That’s right: the Edmonton Oilers, not of Gretzky, Messier, Coffey and Fuhr but of Letestu, Korpikoski, Sekera and Talbot, have picked up 12 of a possible 12 points in the 12th month of 2015.

Call it a young team starting to find it stride, call it making the most of the opportunities presented to them…call it Christmas magic if you want. The bottom line is the Oilers—who’ve won only 156 of a possible 492 games since the 2010-11 season, worst in the NHL—are one game under .500 (14-15-2) and, at 30 points, are starting to creep into the Western Conference’s playoff picture. The Pacific Division is so bad that Edmonton is actually tied with Arizona for second place, trailing only Los Angeles.

To be certain, there’s talent on the roster. (Picking first in the draft for what seems like the last 14 years helps.) When the spirit moves him, Taylor Hall can create offensive opportunities with the puck on his stick, using equal parts speed and skill. Jordan Eberle had himself a fine game Monday night against the Bruins (goal, 2 assists) and got himself involved in the play virtually every time he hopped over the boards. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins also played well Monday (goal, assist) and constantly moved his feet, with or without the puck.

But let’s be serious. This is still a team that currently uses Leon Draisaitil as its top line pivot. It employs Jujhar Khaira (all together now: WHO?) in a top six role, has someone named Oscar Klefbom playing almost 22 minutes a night and has Darnell Nurse and Andrej Sekera as its top defensive pairing.

Yet Todd McClellan’s charges keep finding ways to win. Monday night they gave up a staggering 49 shots, but managed to survive. As a team, they seemed to take their collective skates off the gas pedal after jumping out to a 2-0 lead 14 minutes in, allowing the aforementioned Bruins’ bombardment of shots.

But when the final goal had been scored, courtesy of a Sekera putback after his original shot went off of Bruins defenseman Torey Krug’s left out front of goaltender Jonas Gustavsson, two more points went in the Oilers’ bank. Same as what happened the last time these two teams met back on Dec. 2 in Edmonton (a 3-2 shootout win). Or Dec. 4 against Dallas (a 2-1 win), Dec. 6 against Buffalo (4-2 victory), Dec. 9 against San Jose (a 4-3 triumph) or Dec. 11 against the Rangers (a wild 7-5 affair).

Edmonton’s streak is probably (almost certainly?) going to come to an end before Santa is finished with his cookies and cocoa. The Oilers play at the Rangers Tuesday, in Chicago on Thursday and in Colorado Saturday before returning home to the cozy confines of Rexall Place Dec. 21 for a clash with Winnipeg.

Still, for long-suffering Edmontonians—can you even fathom living there year-round?—this has been a much-loved but totally unexpected early Christmas gift. Common sense would say enjoy it while it lasts, but with a group as plucky as these Oilers, you just never know.

And besides, if the bottom eventually falls out and they go in the tank, the Oilers can always hold Jaroslav Pouzar Night to get the fans happy again.

Is hockey goalie the most important position in sports?

One criticism non-hockey fans tend to throw out is that hockey isn’t a great team sport because a team can ride a hot goalie all the way to a championship. Certainly, the legendary playoff performances of the likes of Ken Dryden, Bernie Parent, Patrick Roy, Tim Thomas and Jonathan Quick over the years have been instrumental and even in some cases solely responsible for Stanley Cup wins. And then there are the performances of Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Ron Hextall, who won Conn Smythe trophies as playoff MVPs even though their teams lost in the finals.

But even setting aside those exceptional feats, having a quality goalie is crucial to NHL team success. That’s not to minimize the contributions of the forwards and defensemen on a team, but the goalie is the last line of defense. Time and again, you see teams with below-average goalies struggle and conversely you see teams that have over-achieved thanks to a high-performing goaltender. Case in point: the Maple Leafs of the late ’90s/early ’00s relied on dominant keepers Curtis Joseph and Eddie Belfour to put together contending teams despite being somewhat shaky in their own end.

Denis-Lemieux

Which brings me to the thesis of this post: Is hockey goalie the most important position in sports? The most obvious comparison is soccer goalie, but the biggest difference there is the number of shots faced. A hockey goalie will face anywhere from 20 to 50 shots in a game, while a soccer goalie will only see about 10 shots; that’s setting aside the huge difference in the comparative size of the object each one is trying to stop. An argument can be made that the quarterback is the most important position in sports, but certainly teams can succeed with average QBs if they’ve got a great running game or an airtight defense. And pitchers are very important in baseball, but a starter only pitches every five days and a reliever only pitches for a short period of time in each game.

The pressure faced by hockey goalies can be intense. There’s not a lot of margin of error. One minor slip-up or mistimed move and the puck’s in the net. It’s especially difficult if the goalie allows a goal on the first shot of the game; if your team’s struggling, giving up a goal early in a game or right after your team just scored can have a devastating effect on a goalie’s team. Nothing takes the air out of a team (or an arena if it’s the home team) like a soft or untimely goal allowed by the goalie. And who takes the brunt of the fans’ disdain if he has a bad game? Yep, it’s the guy in the mask.

There are plenty of factors beyond a goalie’s control, like the traffic in front of the net, deflections or even just the quality of the team playing in front of him. You’ve got well-meaning teammates who try to block a shot and cause a tricky deflection or simply block the goalie’s view of an oncoming shot. You’ve got opposing players crashing the net like a giant bowling ball and you’ve got howitzers blasted at you by guys like Ovechkin, Weber, Chara and Stamkos. Even with all that equipment on, goalies are putting themselves at risk. Remember the Al MacInnis slapper that broke goalie Jocelyn Thibeault’s finger, went through the catching glove and into the net?

It takes a special kind of personality to be a goalie. In addition to being an excellent athlete, you’ve got to be unflappable under pressure, you need to be able to let criticism roll off your back and you need to be a little bit crazy to be willing to get in the way of vulcanized rubber pucks being fired at upwards of 100 mph. From Gump Worsley to Gilles Gratton to Ilya Bryzgalov, there have been plenty of outsized characters who have pulled on goalie masks (or not, in the case of Worsley) in the NHL.

It’s not a position for the weak-hearted. There are goalies who get as far as the NHL before they realize they’re not cut out for the position, at least at the highest level. Take Blaine Lacher, who led his team at Lake Superior State University to a national championship in 1994 and then had a terrific rookie season with the Boston Bruins. Unfortunately for Lacher, he struggled in his sophomore season and within two years was out of hockey altogether.

The game is as much mental as physical for goalies. Jonathan Bernier started the season as Toronto’s #1 netminder but was a brutal 0-8-1 before he was benched for rookie Garret Sparks and then sent to the minors for a 10-day “conditioning stint.” Bernier had gotten into such a funk that Leaf fans became accustomed to seeing him allow soul-crushing goals from impossible angles and ridiculous distances. In his first two games with the AHL Toronto Marlies, Bernier has two shutouts, so maybe he’s getting his mojo back. Meanwhile, the Leafs are dealing with an injury to their current top goalie, James Reimer (who’s seen his share of ups and downs over the last few years) and are starting a goalie tandem (Sparks and Antoine Bibeau) that has a combined total of three games of NHL experience (three for Sparks, none for Bibeau).

Some coaches will lean on a workhorse goalie to carry the bulk of the load, while others prefer a tandem that splits the games. Then you’ve got a coach like Mike Keenan, who has never hesitated to pull a goalie on a whim, whether to punish an underperforming keeper or shake things up when his team’s having an off game. Now coaching in Russia’s KHL, he’s still at it, making two goalie changes in three minutes a few years back.

Whether it’s in the days before face masks, the high-scoring ‘80s and early ‘90s or the current age of bigger goalies and bigger equipment, hockey goalies are under the most pressure of anyone in current professional sports. Think about that the next time you rip into a goalie for a bad performance.