Throughout the year, I’ve written in this space about the bizarre feeling that accompanies diving into a world that I had previously idolized so much. This evening’s Life on the Road analysis of the Florida Panthers, however, takes that to a new level.
Tonight I get to write about Jaromir Jagr, and my Jagr exposure was a truly eye opening experience. He was injured halfway through the game and didn’t return and we didn’t get a chance to speak, but he was still there. THE Jaromir Jagr. The mullet. Puffnuts. A player who has been in the NHL for as long as I’ve been aware of the sport, and a player who seems never to age.
The Florida Panthers are a team going through an unusual transition. After reaching the playoffs last year through accelerated growth, their start to this year was a disappointment. Gerard Gallant, their highly regarded coach, was dismissed after reportedly clashing with the analytics-based philosophy of then- GM and now-head coach Tom Rowe.
Gallant was left standing outside the bus entrance to Carolina’s PNC Arena with his hat literally in hand, trying to hail a cab in an unusual scene that drew the ire of many in the hockey world. The Panthers responded sluggishly, but entering tonight’s game, they’re tucked back in to the playoff picture by one point.
Through it all, Jagr persists. With 34 points in 57 games, he remains a dangerous secondary scorer. He surpassed Mark Messier as the second leading scorer in league history. This week, he racked up his 1,900th career point in the NHL, placing him a category with only Wayne Gretzky.
He’s 44 years old and playing in his 23rd NHL season, with five years in the KHL and Czech Republic sprinkled among them. Jaromir Jagr has played 28 seasons of professional hockey, and he still has the energy and ability to cavort with European supermodels and laugh in their faces when they attempt blackmail. Truly, there will never be another. If you’re present at this evening’s game, you should relish watching him play.
At the other end of the spectrum from Jagr is Sasha Barkov, his linemate and one of Florida’s most exciting offensive players. Barkov was born in 1995 in Finland, though he’s ethnically Russian. Like Blues forward Dmitrij Jaskin, who is dual Russian/ Czech, Barkov is a child of the difficult circumstances that dominated so much of Eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War.
Barkov scored the deciding goal in Saturday’s 3-2 victory over the Los Angeles Kings, and his line with Jagr and Jonathan Huberdeau is certainly the offensive engine that drives the Panthers. Huberdeau missed a huge chunk of time at the beginning of the season due to an Achilles injury resulting from a skate cut, but has jumped right back to fulfilling the promise he’s shown in his brief career.
In a game in Washington where the Panthers were trying to break through against Braden Holtby, it was clear that their strategy was focused on an ongoing onslaught. Early in the game, Florida was willing to test Holtby from every angle, including the half boards without a clear path to the net.
Blues fans can likely expect to see a similar strategy employed in their attempts to solve Jake Allen. Though Allen’s game has improved by leaps and bounds since the changes to the St. Louis coaching staff, he remains somewhat unsteady with his hands. His gaffe on a long, high shot in Buffalo on Saturday is likely all the motivation that teams will need to continue to pepper him until he displays more consistency.
Frustration with Florida’s slow start to the season was likely exacerbated by a desire to see established veterans translate to better results. Though longtime stalwart defenseman Brian Campbell returned to Chicago in the offseason, Keith Yandle provides the necessary puck moving abilities to spark the offense.
The anchor of the Florida blueline is Aaron Ekblad, the first overall pick in the 2014 draft who has quickly become one of the most exciting and dependable rearguards in the NHL. Ekblad has 18 points this season and has finished in the top 25 in Norris Trophy voting in both of his completed seasons thus far. Though his peripheral numbers have suffered some with the early Panthers struggles, he has rebounded and has established himself as, almost certainly, Florida’s best player.
The Panthers feature a number of exciting forwards whose youth and skill should make Blues fans jealous. Nick Bjugstad, Vincent Trocheck (who represented the team in the All Star Game), Reilly Smith and others can generate offense in a hurry.
Even Jon Marchessault, a player who had never previously exceeded seven goals or 18 points, has put up 16 and 34 respectively since signing with Florida this offseason. Marchessault, in fact, could provide a tantalizing example for Blues fans to look toward when considering the future of the recently demoted Kenny Agostino. With 131 points in 150 career games, he’s a great example of a player who, at 26, finally found the right situation to allow him to maximize his abilities.
When the puck drops in St. Louis this evening, the Blues will find themselves opposing a talented team that’s racing against the clock. The Panthers are well aware that they found limitations in their slow start, and the Blues will have to be careful not to end up on their heels as they fight back the furious rally that can come from that sort of energy.