Jagr on verge of almost unheard of distinction this season

Jaromir Jagr (right). (Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

We’re going to go on the assumption here that Teemu Selanne has retired from the NHL for good this time. Of course, you never know with Selanne, but we’re thinking he’s serious about it this time.

That leaves Jaromir Jagr as the oldest player in the NHL this season. And it also gives Jagr a career distinction that not many players can say they share.

When Jagr made his NHL debut with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1990-91, he did so as the youngest player in the NHL that season. Born Feb. 15, 1972, Jagr beat out Owen Nolan of the Quebec Nordiques by just three days. Jagr actually had a bit of good fortune in this situation because the three players aside from Nolan who were taken before him in the 1990 draft – Petr Nedved, Mike Ricci and Keith Primeau – were all late birthdays in 1971 who missed the 1989 draft because they were too young.

Fast-forward 24 years later and Jagr is still playing, and playing very well, for the New Jersey Devils. By the time this season ends, Jagr will be 43 years and two months old, which will make him the 10th oldest player to ever play in the NHL. And it will also give him a distinction shared by the legendary Gordie Howe. When Howe played as a rookie for the Detroit Red Wings in 1946-47, he did so as the youngest player in the six-team NHL that season. And when he finished his NHL career with the Hartford Whalers in 1979-80, he did so as the oldest player in the league at 52.

Not sure how many players can say they were both the youngest and oldest player in the NHL during the course of their careers, but the fact that Jagr and Howe are two who can is a testament to both their prodigious talents as young men and their ability to maintain a high level of play throughout length careers. Some players have one or the other, but a precious few have both. And those who do tend to end up with a plaque in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Jagr is on the verge of a couple of other milestones this season worth celebrating. With 705 career goals, he is sure to pass Mike Gartner and Phil Esposito on the all-time goals list. But here’s where it gets interesting. If he scores 27 this season – remember, he had 24 last year – he’ll pass Marcel Dionne at No. 4 and if he has a wildly successful season and gets 37, he’ll usurp Brett Hull at No. 3.

With 44 points this season – entirely achievable since he had 67 in 2013-14 – Jagr will pass Ron Francis for fourth on the all-time points list. If he takes 210 shots this season – he had 231 with the Devils last season – he’ll be No. 2 behind Ray Bourque on the all-time career list for shots.

Kind of makes you wonder where Jagr would be if he had decided to stay in the NHL instead of playing in Russia for three years and if he hadn’t been robbed of a season-and-a-half with lockouts. But the same could be said for Howe, who retired for two years and played six more in the World Hockey Association before returning to the NHL. Bobby Hull, with 610 career goals, played six-plus seasons in the WHA before returning for a nine-game stint with the Whalers in 1979-80.

And who knows? Jagr hasn’t hinted at retirement and with his level of play so high, it’s not inconceivable that he could play a couple more seasons in the NHL. Regardless of how long he plays, three years after he decides to hang up his skates there will be a place waiting for him in the Hall of Fame.

Could Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin pull a Kovalchuk and play in the KHL?

Adam Proteau
Ovechkin Malkin (Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Until it happens, the notion of Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin departing the NHL in the prime of their careers and returning to their native Russia to play in the KHL should be considered a significant long shot. However, you shouldn’t take that to mean there’s no chance it takes place. As we saw this weekend when Russian president Alexander Medvedev commented cryptically on the possibility of Malkin and Ovechkin playing for a KHL team next season, there are many who would love nothing more than to convince the two superstars to shock the hockey world and head home.

First thing’s first: ultra-sensitive Caps and Penguins fans who read the above paragraph must be reminded to do some deep-breathing relaxation exercises before falling on their backs and squealing as if they’d been kneed in a soft personal place. If Malkin and/or Ovechkin chose to leave hockey’s top league, it wouldn’t be an indictment of their respective franchises or the NHL itself. Rather, they would be moving back to: the warm comforts of their own culture; a Kontinental League that would treat them like Faberge Eggs with legs; and friends and family who are an ocean away for three-quarters of every year. If the shoe were on the other foot and North American players had to ply their trade in Europe each and every season, North American fans would treat any prodigal son as a hero for choosing to leave a more prominent situation to play at home instead.

There’s also a whole lot of tax-free money that would be thrown at Ovechkin and Malkin, but – and this is where your trusty correspondent wishes there was a sarcasm font – we all know these decisions aren’t about money. It wasn’t about money when Ilya Kovalchuk dropped jaws in 2013 by leaving the New Jersey Devils just three years into a 15-year, $100-million contract, right? He just wanted to go home, and no financial payday could keep him in North America. (And make no mistake – anyone who would try to argue people expected Kovalchuk to leave the NHL that quickly after signing a contract extension is as disingenuous as they come.) Read more

After six months, Nicklas Backstrom finally receives his Olympic silver medal

Nicklas Backstrom. (Photo by Patrick Smith/NHLI via Getty Images)

Six months ago, Nicklas Backstrom was gearing up for the gold medal game at the Olympics. Sweden was about to take on Canada for all the marbles in Sochi. Heading into the final, Backstrom had four points – all assists – in five games.

But a few hours before the puck dropped, the IOC announced Backstrom was ineligible to play. They said the 26-year-old had tested positive for pseudoephedrine in a drug test he took a week earlier. The positive was believed to come from the allergy medication that Backstrom had been taking for seven years and prescribed by team doctors. Needless to say, the Swedes weren’t pleased with the way it was handled.

Canada won the game 3-0, but because of his suspension, Backstrom didn’t receive his silver medal with the rest of the Swedish team afterwards. It wasn’t until early March that the IOC decided the one-game suspension was punishment enough and that he could receive his medal.

Today, he finally got it. Backstrom received his medal prior to a Swedish League game between Brynas and Djurgarden. Read more

Washington’s Evgeny Kuznetsov has Russian intelligence on Barry Trotz

Ryan Kennedy
Washington's Evgeny Kuznetsov (Photo by Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images)

There was a very distinct Russian clique at the NHLPA Rookie Showcase in Toronto this weekend, with Washington’s Evgeny Kuznetsov, Boston’s Alexander Khoklachev and the Tampa Bay duo of Vlad Namestnikov and Andrei Vasilevskiy. They hung out during media availability and on the ice, teasing Vasilevskiy as he forged through a rare English interview and cracking up when Khoklachev bailed behind the net.

For Kuznetsov, this was clearly his element. The Capitals’ first pick in 2010 had been a highly anticipated prospect for years, choosing to develop his game with Traktor Chelyabinsk in the KHL instead of North America and for a while there, it seemed like he might never come over. But the powerful and gifted center did indeed make his debut last year, getting into 17 games with Washington once his KHL campaign was done and posting a decent nine points.

You would think a player who had already helped his hometown Chelyabinsk squad get to a Gagarin Cup final in Russia would be a little less awed by the NHL, but that wasn’t the case with Kuznetsov and his debut.

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The top 10 players to watch in the Champions League

Washington first-rounder Jakub Vrana has already started his season (Photo by Andreas Froberg/Linkoping HC/Champions Hockey League via Getty Images)

If you can’t wait for the NHL season to start, maybe turn your attention to Europe, where the Champions League is off and running. The super-sized tournament for club teams features squads from all over the continent and it’s more than just a place to find fun NHL names from the recent past (Chuck Kobasew! Mikael Samuelsson!). A lot of great young talent is on display, including some top NHL prospects and draft eligibles. Below you’ll find 10 players to watch for as the tournament goes on. Not included were skaters on rosters but yet to play in a game, including 2016 prospect Patrik Laine of Finland, 2015′s Michael Spacek of the Czech Republic and Pittsburgh first-rounder Kasperi Kapanen.

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What burning questions remain this NHL off-season?

Ryan Johansen is coming off his entry-level contract with the Blue Jackets, but hasn't signed an extension yet. (Getty Images)

These truly are the dog days of summer. Players, GMs and coaches get their brief time off between the free agency boom and training camps. Media have time to do fun stuff like rank every logo in the NHL. With no hockey, we spend our nights watching Bachelor in Paradise baseball.

But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing happening in the NHL. If you squint, you’ll notice several important questions still unanswered, such as…

1. Will Columbus mend fences with Ryan Johansen and sign him long-term?

The most recent reports out of Columbus had restricted free agent Johansen and the Jackets still $3 million apart. Per season. That’s a Grand Canyonesque gap. So far, the P.K. Subban story isn’t working as a cautionary tale about short-term bridge contracts. After his bridge, Subban won the Norris Trophy and his new long-term cap hit is probably about $2 million more than it would’ve been had Montreal ponied up two years ago and paid him, say, Drew Doughty money.

The Jackets want Johansen to prove his 33-goal breakout was for real, just as they wanted Sergei Bobrovsky to back up his Vezina Trophy campaign when they inked him to a bridge deal last summer. The difference? Nothing about Johansen’s development says fluke. He has pedigree as the No. 4 overall pick in 2010. He was always supposed to be this good. There’s every reason to trust him. Columbus could live to regret a bridge contract. The East is wide open, and this team can contend with its top pivot signed and happy.

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Rumor Roundup: Mike Green’s future with Caps still cloudy

Mike Green

Earlier this summer there was speculation the Washington Capitals would trade defenseman Mike Green. They enter this season with only a little more than $1 million in salary cap space and have been linked to abrasive checking-line forwards Paul Bissonnette and Dan Carcillo. They have little room to add either player and address other needs if required during the season. Shedding Green’s $6.1-million cap hit would address that issue.

This summer’s additions of blueliners Matt Niskanen ($5.75-million cap hit) and Brooks Orpik ($5.5 million) raise questions about Green’s role in the Capitals defense corps. Assuming Niskanen and Orpik form one pairing while John Carlson and Karl Alzner make up another, Green could become an expensive third-pairing rearguard.

ESPN.com columnist Katie Strang, responding to a reader’s question regarding Green’s trade status, expressed surprise he hadn’t been dealt yet. She speculates his value might not be particularly high at the moment. Colleague Craig Custance also addressed Green’s status during a recent live chat, suggesting there’s no rush for the Capitals to move the 28-year-old defenseman.

Custance believes the Detroit Red Wings are a natural fit for Green and notes they have the depth in young talent to interest the Capitals. The Wings seek a top-four defenseman with a right-handed shot. They were linked to Green earlier this summer in the rumor mill, though that chatter has since died down.

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Leafs, Penguins among the NHL’s five most pressure-packed markets in 2014-15

Randy Carlyle (Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)

The NHL has always been a pressure-packed league, but from year-to-year, some teams face more pressure than others. Which franchises are going to be dealing with an especially hot seat once the 2014-15 season begins? These five:

5. Washington Capitals. When the Caps missed the playoffs last year and owner Ted Leonsis cleaned house on the management side, some observers expected them to go the same route with their underachieving roster. They did no such thing, and instead doubled down with two high-priced free agent acquisitions (defensemen Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen). Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee they’ll even make the playoffs in the mediocre Metropolitan division. And if they fall on their faces again and miss the post-season for the second straight year – the first time that will have happened since 2005-07 – what will ownership’s response be then?

4. San Jose Sharks. Sports has a long tradition of identifying underdogs – i.e., teams not expected to do well because they’re lacking in depth or talent – but the Sharks are now officially overdogs: a team not expected to do well despite having all kinds of depth and talent. San Jose GM Doug Wilson’s criticism of his group of players after last spring’s playoff collapse against the Kings should have everyone walking on eggshells as soon as training camp begins, but any kind of serious stumble during the season could lead to major changes. Read more