Question for the long-suffering masses who follow hockey in southern Alberta: If you were the Calgary Flames and had a chance to sign Jaromir Jagr after July 1, would you?
Sounds outlandish, on the surface of things that Calgary would be a legitimate suitor for the 40-year-old Jagr, who becomes a free agent in 10 days time after spending last season playing for the Philadelphia Flyers. Jagr returned to the NHL following three years with Avangaard Omsk of Russia's Continental Hockey League (KHL) and was a remarkably good fit on a Flyers team that made the playoffs and upset one of the Stanley Cup favourites, the Pittsburgh Penguins, in the opening round.
It was just assumed that Jagr, who was on a one-year contract, would sign again with the Flyers, and that could still happen. But he, like a lot of other unrestricted free agents, wants to go to July 1 to see what's out there for him. And that's where a destination such as Calgary becomes less outlandish than it may seem.
At this stage of his career, Jagr is looking primarily for two things – a new hockey-playing experience in an organization that would value his contributions, monetarily and otherwise. When Jagr first made noises about coming back to the NHL, it was just assumed that he would rejoin the Penguins, who were happy enough to consider his services, but only at a contract number – $2-million (all currency U.S.) per season – that made sense for them.
Fiscally, the Penguins were tapped out and saw Jagr as a useful supporting piece, but at a price. Jagr figured differently and picked Philadelphia, the Penguins' arch rival, and signed for what was still a good deal for the Flyers – $3.3-million per season.
Calgary's interest in Jagr perked up after it engineered a small coup earlier this off-season, signing talented free agent Roman Cervenka, a Czech player, who was Jagr's centre in Omsk two years ago. When Cervenka picked Calgary ahead of several other teams, he was widely billed as one of the best players outside the NHL.
Often, with players of that pedigree, the challenge of adapting to a new league has less to do with hockey and more with adjusting to the environment – and everything outside the rink.
Funny how a Jagr-Cervenka pairing in Calgary would close the circle. When Jagr first arrived in North America in 1990-91, he was floundering and had a hard time adjusting as a teenager to life outside his Czech hometown of Kladno. The Penguins saw that and made a strategic deal with Calgary to acquire Jiri Hrdina, a thirty-something Czech and one of the first to break down the Iron Curtain. Hrdina had made the transition in Calgary and helped Jagr as a mentor and friend.
Wouldn't it be something if Jagr returned the favour for Cervenka and migrated west? Jagr is a bit of a free thinker, and you always had the sense that playing in Canada is something that he wanted to do once in his professional life. He flirted with the idea of joining the Edmonton Oilers before going to Siberia and last year, the Montreal Canadiens were in there pitching for his services before he ultimately signed with the Flyers.
Sometimes, the prospect of going to a middle-of-the-road Canadian team with an aging building would be immediately dismissed by a future Hall of Famer like Jagr.
But Jagr has shown over the years a willingness to take the road less travelled – and if somehow it took him to Calgary, it would make the Flames a far more interesting club heading into 2012-13. Adding Jagr, Cervenka, plus high-scoring pr ospect Sven Baertschi to a team that already includes Jarome Iginla, Alex Tanguay, Mike Cammalleri and an all-world goaltender in Miikka Kiprusoff would lift the Flames from nondescript also-ran to intriguing unknown.
For three years in a row now, the Flames have just missed the playoffs, with a team that's getting older all the time. There is an appetite for a complete rebuild among portions of the fan base, but not among the team's ownership and management group, who remain determined to patch and plug and try to make the most of Iginla's and Kiprusoff's remaining good years. That window may stay open for perhaps two years, which is why an aggressive attempt to sign Jagr wouldn't be out of the question, just as Calgary made an unexpectedly aggressive push for Brad Richards in free agency a year ago.
Last June, at the entry draft, the Flames made a splash by trading away a mainstay on defence, Robyn Regehr, to emerge from what general manager Jay Feaster called "salary-cap hell." This season, there's talk they'll offer Jay Bouwmeester and the two years remaining on his $6.68-million contract to get out of salary-cap purgatory.
Because of ownership stability and the attendant willingness to spend, the Flames are not above reaching for the moon, or trying something pie-in-the-sky to get better. Off-seasons always seem to be more interesting in Calgary than October-to-April and this summer – with the entry draft approaching and free agency just around the corner – figures to be no exception.