In a recent NY Post report, and various reports throughout the year, there is growing speculation that former New York Ranger and future Hall of Famer Jaromir Jagr is considering a comeback to the NHL.
First and foremost, let me reiterate that this is all pure speculation and aside from a few "Jagr-esque" quotes, tongue-in-cheek and filled with mystery, there is little foundation to suggest that there is a legitimate chance that he returns to North America.
What we do know is that Jagr's KHL contract expires following this season and there is no clause or option for additional years, making him a completely unrestricted free agent. This could equally enable him to return to the NHL freely as well as re-sign with a KHL team.
There are certain challenges facing the KHL now, namely from a financial perspective. Is the league viable? It remains to be seen whether the poor global economy combined with the second-teir talent will allow the KHL to continue. Nonetheless, Jagr is their biggest icon and his presence means a great deal to their visibility and, inevitably, their viability.
Should Jagr leave, it would send a huge message as to the quality and future of the KHL and it's players. It would also significantly decline any leverage the KHL would try to muster in reaching a transfer agreement with the NHL. If the league is no good for Jagr, why would any European player of consequence play there? Furthermore, what about the good second-line talent that is there now?
Take recent Ranger Nik Zherdev.
Is he likely to remain overseas if the league loses it's top star? One argument is that a young player like Zherdev could garner more money if Jagr leaves because the KHL will be forced to hold onto it's top talents. The other side of the fence is that the future of the league is simply too unstable without Jagr.
Now, Jagr isn't the entire KHL. Don't get me wrong, the league isn't going to fold tomorrow if Jagr retired today. But it would send a wave and there is no telling just how far that wave could reach.
Amongst the speculation of "if" Jagr could return is, of course, where.
Everyone will have their rumors and sources about places he could go, etc., but in reality, there are very few likely destinations for "The Big Guy."
Edmonton has been linked to Jagr since his final offseason in the NHL. Jagr acknowledged that he was honored to be courted so strongly by them and now that they have former Ranger head coach Tom Renney as part of the coaching staff, that only fuels the fire.
Could Edmonton be a candidate? Sure, but that's because Jagr is a character guy. He genuinely appreciated Edmonton's interest and said countless times that Renney was, by far, his favorite coach.
However, Edmonton is rebuilding. Couple that with an intense travel schedule and it doesn't bode well for a 38-year-old returning NHL veteran.
In fact, I would go as far as to eliminate the west coast entirely just for that reason. Jagr isn't stupid. He knows that his best chance for longevity during the season comes from east coast travel. Remember, Jagr is a workout fanatic and has always prided himself on staying healthy and not missing games. He wouldn't want to jeopardize that now.
There is also the factor of being a contender. The Eastern Conference is less cut and dry than the west, but there are certain teams who standout.
The first team that comes to mind is the Pittsburgh Penguins. Jagr also acknowledged the intrigue of having his career come full circle and, out of respect for his former mentor, should Mario Lemieux come calling, Jagr would come running. Pittsburgh is also short on right wingers, which would make the scenario that much more likely.
Many people will also point to the opportunity for Jagr to play with All-Star Sidney Crosby. However, Jagr was very critical of Crosby in his final season in the NHL. Could that just be water under the bridge? Not so sure.
You can eliminate Washington and Philadelphia because Jagr would never play for a Penguins rival nor would he return to that D.C. massacre.
Aside from the Capitals, there are no other legitimate threats in the Southeast Division for Jagr to consider playing for. Perhaps the Tampa Bay Lightning are nearing the contender status, but their shaky ownership situation wouldn't lend itself to bringing in a former All-Star.
In the Northeast Division, the Ottawa Senators, Buffalo Sabres and Boston Bruins are all playoff contenders, but would they present an attractive option for Jagr? Buffalo lacks the star atmosphere that, make no mistake about it, Jagr relishes. They are also thin up front without any clear player for him to mesh with.
Ottawa is a big market, has some offensive flair, and could prove to be a good match. Yet, like Tampa Bay, they are a volatile franchise and seemingly can rattle off 15 losses as quickly as they can string together record-setting wins. Besides, I just can't see Jagr in that jersey.
Boston is a traditional market with a rich history. They also have some expiring contracts that would allow them to reshape the team around Jagr in the offseason. But, again, I just can't see Jagr wearing that brown and yellow. And if Marc Savard doesn't re-sign, they have a major conundrum at center, given Patrice Bergeron's health and David Krejci's contract status.
This leaves us with a couple Atlantic Division teams. The New York Islanders have made some positive steps, but are still a couple seasons away from contending for a championship. Their risky ownership situation also questions their longevity.
The New Jersey Devils have a history of success and with their recent acquisition of Ilya Kovalchuk exemplified that they are committed to winning now.
Yet, Jagr isn't a GM Lou Lamoriello-type. True, neither is Kovalchuk, but if the Devils are looking to retain the former Atlanta Thrasher, they aren't going to consider Jagr as well. He did show the ability to play two-way hockey under Renney, but that may not be enough to convince Lou.
Besides, Jagr couldn't be that close to NYC and play for a half-empty stadium each night with 18,200 fans at MSG one train stop away.
Of course, that leaves us with the Rangers.
The first question is whether Jagr could mesh with Head Coach John Tortorella. I doubt it, just based on personality. Then again, it would be an offense-first system which suits Jagr and there is no question that Tortorella is looking for more leadership from his locker room.
Jagr would provide that.
With Marian Gaborik, the Rangers already have their stud right winger, which would relegate No. 68 to the second line. This may not be the worst thing considering it would present an opportunity to pair young center Artem Anisimov with Jagr and perhaps upcoming left winger Evgeny Grachev.
That would be a terrific combination to watch should it evolve.
Would Jagr want to play with two rookies? Not sure, but he did get along quite well with Brandon Dubinsky, which is always a possible reunion.
And Jagr loved New York. He made no qualms about it that he always wanted to be there and relished the time when it presented itself. The "Big Guy" fit well in the "Big City" and the fanbase adored him. Each of these could be a considerable factor for Jagr.
Then again, the Rangers aren't at the same echelon as the Penguins and are still a bit away from being considered contenders. Jagr would bring them closer to contender status, but he couldn't be the lone offseason transaction.
In all likelihood, Jagr will choose between Pittsburgh and New York. It wouldn't make sense for him to add another team to his resume at this point in his career nor would it make sense for him to venture to a non-contender.
It'll provide interesting debate and internet fodder through this summer, but keep it in perspective. As Jagr said, "whatever happens, happens."