Jaromir Jagr had one of the most interesting career arcs in recent memory.
After posting 71 points and helping the New York Rangers reach the second round of the playoffs in 2007-08, general manager Glen Sather decided not to keep Jagr around. Despite getting offers from other NHL teams, Jagr packed up and left for Russia to join the brand-new KHL.
At 36 years old, it appeared Jagr was ready to ride out the rest of his career playing in Europe, but, after three seasons in the KHL, he made a surprise return. He would spend the next seven seasons doing a tour of the league, playing in Philadelphia, Boston, Dallas, New Jersey, Florida, and Calgary. Jagr completely defied father time, putting up 322 points in 460 games before finally leaving to play in his home club in the Czech Republic when he was 45 years old.
When it was all said and done, Jagr had moved into second in all-time points in the NHL with 1921. Nobody expected Old Man Jagr’s return in 2011-12 to go as well as it did and absolutely nobody expected it to go on for seven seasons.
But what if that return happened a couple of years earlier? And what if it involved the Edmonton Oilers? No, no, I’m not talking about signing a 45-year-old Jagr at the tail end of his career as we discussed ahead of the 2018-19 season, I’m talking about a still-prime Jagr joining the Oilers after his first season in the KHL. Apparently, it almost happened.
— Jason Gregor (@JasonGregor) February 8, 2019
Last year, Jason Strudwick told a story on The Jason Gregor Show about Jagr nearly becoming an Oiler part-way through the 2008-09 season. Strudwick says that if Jagr’s KHL team Avangard Omsk had missed the playoffs, he would have signed with the Oilers for the remainder of that season.
My wife got a call from Jaromir Jagr’s then-girlfriend at the time, asking what it was like in Edmonton. I remember we were at home and my wife is like, ‘hey, it’s Jaromir Jagr’s girlfriend’ and she wants to know what it’s like [in Edmonton].
So Jags gets on the phone and we’re talking and basically, the long short of it was, there was a plan for him to come to Edmonton if his team [Avangard Omsk] didn’t make the playoffs.
As it turns out, I think they won the last game of the year in overtime and they did get into the playoffs, so he didn’t come. They just got in by the skin of their teeth. If they hadn’t made that, my understanding from Jags is that he was on his way to Edmonton to play for us.
2008-09 was the inaugural season of the KHL, which had been re-branded from the previous Russian Superleague. For their inaugural season, KHL teams lured over a handful of quality NHL players, including Alexander Radulov, Ladislav Nagy, and, of course, Jagr, who inked a deal worth the equivalent of $5 million US annually.
Jagr finished the season leading a fairly mediocre Omsk team with 25 goals and 53 points, good for seventh in league scoring. Omsk was the final team to squeak into the playoffs with 78 points. The Severstal Cherepovets finished just one point behind them in the standings. After Omsk lost their final game of the season, Severstal had a chance to jump them and make the playoffs, but they lost their final game to Metallurg Magnitogorsk by a score of 2-1.
So, if Severstal had come through and won that game, Jagr’s Omsk would have missed the playoffs and he would have been on his way to Edmonton.
The Oilers, at that time, were right in the thick of a playoff race. The day the KHL season ended in late-February, the Oilers sat with a 30-26-5 record. Just eight points separated fourth and 12th place in the Western Conference and the Oilers were right in the middle of it.
The team was fuelled by strong seasons from Sheldon Souray, who was finally healthy after missing the majority of the previous season, Ales Hemsky, and Dwayne Roloson, who put together his best showing in net since the 2006 playoff run. That said, disappointing seasons from guys like Dustin Penner and Erik Cole and the inability of Edmonton’s Kid Line to take a step forward meant the team needed some help.
Edmonton only had three players break 50 points that season, Hemsky, Souray, and Shawn Horcoff. Adding Jagr to play alongside Hemsky, his good friend and fellow countryman, would have given the Oilers a formidable top line and a major boost offensively.
Instead, Jagr made the playoffs in the KHL, stayed in Russia, and the Oilers had to go a different route. At the trade deadline, general manager Steve Tambellini sent Erik Cole back to Carolina in a three-team deal to acquire Patrick O’Sullivan and he shipped a second-round pick to the Buffalo Sabres for Ales Kotalik. Neither player was able to be a difference-maker. Edmonton would go 7-9-4 in March and April and ended up missing the playoffs by six points.
What would have happened if Jagr’s KHL team missed the playoffs and he joined the Oilers?
In the short-term, there’s a reasonable chance he gives the team enough of a boost to make the playoffs. The Oilers likely still make the Cole for O’Sullivan swap, which was a move to get younger, but the Kotalik deal doesn’t happen as Jagr represents the addition to the top-six. Maybe the second-round pick is used on a different rental player.
Once you’re in the playoffs, anything can happen. If Jagr and Hemsky had clicked on Edmonton’s top line, giving the team a more potent offence, given the way Roloson had been playing that season, the Oilers could have been poised for a bit of a run in the playoffs.
What about beyond that? Can Jagr help change the trajectory of the franchise?
If all goes well and Jagr helps propel Edmonton in the playoffs in 2009, the team surely makes an effort to keep him around longer. Making the playoffs is also likely enough to keep Craig MacTavish behind the bench for another year. Having Jagr around wouldn’t have stopped the 2009-10 season from being a disaster, as injuries to Hemsky, Souray, and Nikolai Khabibulin played a key role in that team’s demise, but he might have been enough to help stop them from finishing last overall in the standings.
I mean, Jagr helped some pretty underwhelming New York Rangers teams do well in previous years. Could he have helped the Oilers do better than 27-47-8? Probably. Does it change the trajectory of the franchise at all? Not really. The biggest difference is that a full season of Jagr on the 2009-10 team might mean not finishing last overall and not getting a choice between Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin with the first-overall draft pick.
At the end of the day, as cool as it would have been to see Jagr suit up for the Oilers, we more than likely didn’t miss out on much. He more than likely would have been enough of a difference-maker to get the team into the playoffs in 2009, but nothing, not even Jaromir Jagr, was stopping that team’s implosion shortly after.