There were more than a few reasons for the Dallas Stars to go after Jaromir Jagr last summer, with the team in transition and in need of veteran leadership for the young up-and-coming players on the team. When Jagr was signed it was unclear just how inexperienced the Stars would be but the signing, at least through 13 games, is playing out like a stroke of genius for GM Joe Nieuwendyk and owner Tom Gaglardi.
Jagr stated after he signed he wanted to go to a team that wanted him, where he'd be needed in a top-line role and would be expected to play in big minutes. With the Stars in need of a reworked top six and mentorship and offensive help for Jamie Benn, the Stars took advantage of the Flyers dragging their feet with re-signing the future Hall of Famer and snatched up a player that has had an incredible impact already on the franchise.
What was unknown at the time would be how Jagr would respond to being on a team that was expected to go through growing pains and struggles on the ice while giving big minutes to a number of players in just their first or second season in the NHL. The legendary forward spent last season on a high-flying and highly-competitive Flyers team in an intense environment, led by hot-headed coach Peter Laviolette.
The transition to the Stars, who play a much different style in a more physical conference with a much tougher travel schedule, was always going to be interesting for Jagr. How would he respond if the team struggled and how would he work under coach Glen Gulutzan, who has just one year of NHL coaching experience under his belt?
So far, it's clear that Jagr is indeed the on and off-ice leader many claimed he had been in Philadelphia.
Jagr will not be on the ice for the Stars when the team truly finds its stride with the young talent currently being cultivated but his influence is already being felt throughout the franchise. During the latest three-day break and after a big win at home against Anaheim, Jagr turned to his official Facebook page to provide some insight on the team's direction.
I don't wanna jinx it but I believe that we found a style that works well for our team. It's not a flawless style, it's not pretty to watch, but it's "OUR" style. It's a game based on grit, defence, good goalie and an excellent play by the boards. It's not a risky "up and down" hockey, when many goals are scored on both sides. We don't have a team for that kind of game and we could hardly beat anyone if we tried to play like that. I'm hoping we continue to play this well like we did in the last few games. Especially for our GM and coaches. They're all very nice people. They're another example that even without yelling and threatening you can gain a huge respect.
The emphasis on the style of leadership from the GM and coaches is interesting, given the questions some have over the effectiveness of some of the decisions by Gulutzan and Nieuwendyk. Jagr has proven to be a valuable asset for the Stars coach, however, helping guide Gulutzan and the Stars forward in a search for a true identity as a hockey team.
Less than two weeks ago the Stars seemed directionless struggled in nearly every area of the game. The Stars have found ways to win since that shutout loss in Phoenix, however, and this latest win was just another example of a team digging deep when such a victory was not possible just a few weeks back.
"This is just our game, the way we play," said Jagr after the game. "The way we play and the way [Lehtonen] play, he is the key for our success. And that's why we don't panic even when we don't play very well for the first period. I thought they outplayed us for the first period and it was only 1-0. We were down 1-0. And we knew we had a chance to play better and we had a chance to win the hockey game, and that's what he did."
That belief in themselves that Jagr speaks of is a mentality that did not exist last season and is a big reason for the late collapses by the Stars the past few years -- and a big reason for the changes the franchise made last summer. This season the Stars struggled without a true identity while working through the absences of several key players; now the Stars have won five of their last six games and finally seem to be coming together with a locker room culture once again built around hard work but more importantly -- a belief in themselves and each other.
"I'm glad I'm on this team," said Jagr on Tuesday night. "I think we've got so many great guys. We have so much fun. It's always help when you're winning. The goals, I knew it was going to come. The fun and the team battling together, that's the whole key. That's when I have fun the most."
The easy wins for the Stars this season will be far and few between; this is a team that is going to have to succeed through grit and hard work once more. The 4-1 win over Edmonton is one that the Stars would have lost in the past, despite the strong performance by Lehtonen; it's something we've seen far too many times in the past. This victory is one that could be seen down the road as a character-building performance, a moment when the Stars really started to find their identity as a hockey team.
Jagr is realistic about the team he is on and it's clear that things perhaps aren't as free-wheeling and open as they were in Philadelphia last season. The soon-to-be 41-year old winger leads the team in points, however, and continues to provide the Stars with big goals at big moments in the game. The Stars aren't a pretty team and won't win many games by a big margin but there seems to be a corner being turned in the Stars ability to find ways to win.
"It's up to us," said Jagr. "I don't think we have a team to be able to play up and down hockey. But I think we are great within cycling the puck and play on the boards. The key is the goaltending, and I think we have that. We just some of our games are not going to be pretty. It's not going to be high scoring games. But as long as we win, that's fine."