Friday, July 04, 2008

Jagr bomb: a Hull of a contract

Photo: Jaromir Jagr, with mullet [Photo from James Mirtle's blog].

Perhaps the NHL can only tolerate one mullet at a time these days. In seriousness, Jaromir Jagr's decision[Eric Duhatschek,The Globe and Mail]to sign with Avangard Omsk of the Continental Hockey League (KHL, to use the Russian acroynm) is only partially surprising, but it should serve as a wake-up call to the NHL that they aren't the only league in town any more. We've heard this song somewhere before: a new league pops into existence, featuring plenty of wealthy businessmen with money to burn on their clubs, and they suddenly make a large contract offer to an aging NHL star to give their league instant respectability. That Bobby Hull contract was the key factor that launched the WHA off the ground: with him on board, the league was taken seriously and became a viable alternative for NHL players looking for a bigger payday.

Interestingly though, few media sources are making the suggestion that this could actually spell a serious challenge to the NHL, and there certainly haven't been too many comparisons to the Hull contract. Much of the coverage I've read has Jagr painted as someone looking to play out the remnants of his career closer to home in a backwater league, which doesn't seem to me to be the whole story of what's going on.* Especially considering the Russian oligarch involved
and his past spending habits on players, I wouldn't be too surprised if Jagr is merely the first big name to join the KHL.

*Aside: Would people care more if Jagr was a Canadian guy? I bet there would be lots of outrage, waving of the flag, segments on Coach's Corner and all the rest, but because he's a European, it's passed off as just a typically eccentric move. Yes, Omsk is closer to home for Jagr, but it's still quite a ways from the Czech Republic. In my mind, this is about more than just playing out his career at home.

Let's examine the stats of Jagr and Hull here using Hockey-Reference's numbers (note: Hull did make a brief NHL comeback at age 41 with the Winnipeg Jets and Hartford Whalers after they jumped into that league, but only played 27 games in that stint. His stats from that comeback are not included in the numbers below.)

Age when they jumped leagues:
Bobby Hull: 33
Jaromir Jagr: 35

Points in last NHL season before leaving:
Hull: 93 (50 goals, 43 assists) in 78 games
Jagr: 71 (25 goals, 46 assists) in 82 games

Points over last three NHL seasons before leaving:
Hull: 256 (132 goals, 124 assists) in 217 games (1.18 points per game)
Jagr: 290 (109 goals, 181 assists) in 246 games (1.18 points per game)

NHL career regular-season points when they left
Hull: 1153 (604 goals, 549 assists) in 1036 games
Jagr: 1599 (646 goals, 953 assists) in 1273 games

Regular-season points per game career average when they left
Hull: 1.11
Jagr: 1.26

Just off that quick comparison, it looks like their stats are in the same realm. Hull was slightly younger than Jagr when he left and had a better final NHL season, but Jagr's had the better career and his recent numbers are still pretty good. I found the three-season comparison particularly interesting: yes, it's somewhat arbitrary, but I wanted to get an idea of how they'd contributed over a slightly longer period of time than just one year, as everyone has down years (and Jagr's last year was definitely a down year). The stats are very similar (except Hull's include more goals), and the points-per-game figures are identical to two decimal places.

In many ways, that's the real question with this move. If Jagr plays in Russia like he did last year (a respectable 71 points in 82 games, 35th in the NHL on a pure points basis), then the overarching portrait that has been painted of a guy who could still play in the NHL but wouldn't have been in the real upper echelon of superstars would be correct. If, however, he returns to his eye-popping 2005-06 numbers (54 goals, 69 assists, 123 points, 1.50 points per game and the Lester B. Pearson Award as the players' MVP selection) or even his 2006-07 numbers (30 goals, 66 assists, 96 points, 1.17 points per game), then the NHL really has lost a talent similar to the calibre of Bobby Hull when he left the league.

In either case, this move may not compare to landing Evgeni Malkin, but it still means a lot. Regardless of what Jagr does, the fact remains that a Russian team has snatched a player who not only still could have played in the NHL, but would have received substantial cash to do so. They've also likely outbid the NHL. Duhatschek relates that Edmonton offered Jagr more money outright ($8 million U.S., one year), but Jagr's $7 million contract in Russia is actually the equivalent of a $10 million NHL contract when you factor in that the team pays the income tax.

The tax advantage is one huge trump card for the KHL. The location in Russia is another. With the global nature of the NHL these days, there are plenty of players who call Sweden, Finland, Russia, or other European countries home, and you can bet it's easier to pop in for a visit when you're on the same continent. You probably won't see too many North Americans going over at the moment, but that may change if the money and the calibre of the competition go up enough. The league also has ambitions to expand to Finland, the Ukraine and Sweden, which you can bet would entice even more players.

The NHL may be playing the CHL down as a fringe league at the moment, but that's what they consistently did with the WHA, and look at the players that it wound up pulling in. It's going to be worth watching what continues to happen with the CHL. As Duhatschek writes, "Jagr's contract could, in some ways, be compared to the $1-million that the Winnipeg Jets of the World Hockey Association gave Bobby Hull in 1972. He adds a box-office attraction to a league that represents little immediate threat to the NHL but, like the WHA, will require monitoring in the months and years to come."

- James Mirtle has a quality tribute to Jagr, as well as an excellent primer on the KHL.
- Neate weighs in on the impact of Jagr's career [Out of Left Field].
- Greg Wyshynski's thoughts on the matter [Puck Daddy].
- Sean Zandberg on the downside of Jagr (and yes, there certainly was one, but he's seemingly been able to play like he cares during his New York stint, so I expect that to continue) [Waiting For Stanley].
- Mike Halford thinks Jagr will be back [Orland Kurtenblog].
- Mike Woods, the biggest Jaromir Jagr fan around (the man has a personalized Ottawa Senators jersey with Jagr's name and number, for crying out loud), will likely have a post on the matter whenever he finishes recuperating from hearing the news [The view from the Woods].

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