Friday marked a year since general manager Dale Tallon pulled the trigger to bring Jaromir Jagr to the Panthers, and the Florida sunshine has been good to the 44-year-old winger.
In 57 games with the New Jersey Devils last season, Jagr scored just 11 goals. In his 77 games since joining the Panthers, he has 26 tallies. And in his first full season in Florida, Jagr leads the team in goals (20) and points (44).
“So far, so good,” Jagr said. “I give everything I got for this team. This team gave me the opportunity to play, so it works both ways.”
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The Panthers were 26-22-13 before Jagr arrived in Sunrise. On the night of the trade, they were blown out 3-0 by the Chicago Blackhawks. The loss marked the second time they had been shut out in the past eight games, and it was the fifth consecutive game in which the Panthers scored two goals or fewer.
Just two points out of a playoff spot, the Panthers badly needed a jumpstart on offense. Tallon, who said he made sure the Panthers didn’t mortgage too many future assets, sent New Jersey a second-round pick and a conditional third-rounder to bring Jagr to Florida. But neither Tallon nor coach Gerard Gallant knew just how much Jagr would provide.
For a player who said he “didn’t know anything about [the] guys in Florida,” the then 43-year-old Jagr didn’t take long to get comfortable. He scored six goals and assisted on 12 more during the final 20 games of the season.
“I thought he’d be an impact player for sure,” Gallant said, “but personally I didn’t think he’d put up the numbers he’s putting up this year and be that important of a hockey player on our team. We all know he’s great and we say, ‘when’s it gonna stop?’ Forty-three, 44 years of age. But he just continues to do it and continues to impress us every night.”
And while the Panthers fell short of a playoff berth last season, their 12-7-2 mark down the stretch was a sign of future success. Since Jagr arrived, the Panthers have a 47-25-9 mark, which includes their Atlantic Division-leading 35-18-7 record in 2015-16.
“It’s really had a great influence on our players and our organization and the marketplace,” Tallon said. “It’s been a real blessing for us. You never know what you’re gonna get at that particular situation, but the last 20 games [of last season] set a tempo for this year. He’s very responsible for the development and maturation of our young players. Plus he’s contributed offensively as well. So it’s been all good.”
In a dressing room full of young players, Jagr’s impact extends off the ice. Nick Bjugstad, a 23-year-old center, said Jagr has been a “big contributor” and helps to keep the team focused.
As the Panthers try to win a playoff series for the first time since 1996, Jagr’s experience as a Stanley Cup champion is invaluable, Bjugstad said.
“He’s a good guy,” said Shawn Thornton, who also played with Jagr in Boston. “He’s always happy, always smiling. I’d be happy, too, if I was still getting paid at .”
The Panthers won’t be at home much as the regular season winds down. Florida, which has played the fewest road games in the NHL this season, finishes with 14 of its 22 remaining games away from Sunrise. That stretch begins with a five-game road trip that starts on Saturday against Columbus and finishes in Arizona.
“Everyone’s battling for a spot right now,” Bjugstad said. “So everyone’s gonna be playing playoff-type hockey. It’s not gonna be a high-scoring game usually, and we’re gonna have to win one-, two-goal games and keep it tight. This will be a good stretch for us to get hopefully prepared for the playoffs, and we just gotta find ways to win.”
▪ Quinton Howden was a full participant in Friday’s practice, and Gallant said he would travel with the Panthers. Meanwhile, Jonathan Huberdeau, who is recovering from an upper-body injury, will remain in Florida. But Gallant said he could potentially rejoin the team on the road.
Saturday: Panthers at Blue Jackets
When, where: 3 p.m.; Nationwide Arena, Columbus, Ohio.
TV, radio: FSFL; WQAM (560), WMEN (640).
The series: Columbus leads 13-6-0.
Scouting report: The last time Florida visited Columbus, it left town with a 2-1 shootout win — the Panthers' first there since 2007. The Panthers have won three of their past four as they embark on a five-game road trip. Columbus is coming off a 6-1 thrashing of visiting New Jersey on Thursday.