Jaromir Jagr. (Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images)
We may believe Jaromir Jagr's body broke down in the playoffs, but he doesn't. He feels good as new and even plans to "be better" next season at 44.
We listened and waited for Jaromir Jagr to finish laughing.
There should be no sweeter sound to a Florida Panther fan right now. Jagr spoke to reporters, including THN, on a conference call Friday a day after signing a one-year, $4-million extension with the Florida Panthers, and he had a case of the giggles. He couldn't take seriously the concept of his body breaking down. That's how good he feels physically, at 44, after completing his 22nd NHL season. Aging is so far off the radar that he perceives the idea almost as a joke if asked about it.
"I'm never sore," Jagr said with a laugh. "I don't get tired. My body doesn't get tired. Of course you get upset, but it's more mentally tough that it didn't go the way I wanted it to. But physically I don't get tired."
Jagr was referring to his Panthers losing in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs after winning the Atlantic Division and setting a franchise record with 103 points. The disappointment sucked some of the joy out of what was otherwise a banner season. Jagr had 27 goals and 66 points, centers Aleksander Barkov and Vincent Trocheck enjoyed breakout campaigns, and Kevin Spacey mania overtook the BB&T Center, but the lasting memory of 2015-16 will be New York Islanders captain John Tavares sealing the series with an overtime winner in Game 6.
Jagr expresses clear anguish over the defeat. But everything else he had to say Friday contradicts the narrative that his body wilted by season's end, that he was too slow and fatigued to handle the rigors of playoff hockey, that his first-line role made him a borderline liability for Florida. Jagr managed just two assists against the Islanders and hasn't scored a goal in his past 37 post-season games. In his opinion, however, the struggles have nothing to do with his body. Asked whether he may have to rest more next season, perhaps sitting out the second leg of back-to-backs, he laughed. And laughed some more.
“I don’t think this is the problem," he said. "I don’t believe that if you rest more, you’re actually going to play better. It’s working the other way for me. If I’m not going to play good, I have to work harder to be better, that’s all. And I actually feel better the second game than the first game, so…”
Jagr had nine points in 13 games playing the second leg of back-to-backs this year, good for 0.69 points per game. For the season he hummed along at 0.84, so the offensive numbers don't fully support his claim, but the dropoff in back-to-backs is hardly precipitous. He's approaching next season not asking himself whether his body can handle another year, but about whether he can improve. He treats the season the way a 20-year-old riser like Barkov should. It's that maniacal, borderline delusional devotion that makes Jagr who he is. It's why he maintains the physique of a sculpture you might find in a museum. It's why he continues his famous late-night workouts and wears weight belts during the process. It's why Jagr sits 21 points behind Mark Messier for second all-time in NHL history.
At the same time, Jagr might be more realistic about his future than he lets on. He signed just a one-year deal, after all, and said Friday he won't sign anything longer going forward.
"If things don't go well, I'm just not going to play anymore," he said.
Still, Panther fans have to be encouraged by his invincible attitude. In his mind, he'll open 2016-17 with the same energy he showed in 2015-16, a year in which he played well enough to book a ticket to his ninth All-Star Game. He believes his team should continue ascending and inch closer to Stanley Cup contention. He loves living in South Florida but insists re-signing was also a hockey decision.
"I'm happy with the place I'm playing, everything around it, the organization, from the first guy to the last guy," he said. "Very young, talented players, potential is very high. So, hockey wise, I feel like we have a chance."
And while time and the human concept of aging suggests Jagr won't be an NHLer by the time Florida peaks and hoists the Cup, we stopped trying to understand or predict Jagr long ago. Nothing he does going forward should surprise us.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin