NEWARK, N.J. — The New Jersey Devils replaced their best player, with one of the NHL’s greatest of all time.
Less than two weeks after the stunning defection of Ilya Kovalchuk back to Russia, the Devils signed two-time Stanley Cup winner and former NHL MVP Jaromir Jagr to a one-year, $2 million contract on Tuesday.
There is no doubt that that the 41-year-old Jagr is in the twilight of his career, and he certainly will never fill the void left by Kovalchuk, who decided to retire from the NHL at 30 so he can play in his native Russia.
For now though, Jagr gives general manager Lou Lamoriello and the Devils a proven scorer who works hard up front, and can play on the power play.
"I watched him play the last couple of years and I have never seen someone work so hard," Lamoriello said in a telephone interview with the Associated Press. "We know where he is in his career. He brings something. Everyone who has played with him the last couple of years and also the coaches have been complimentary toward everything he has done. There is no question he can help us on the power play.
"He is a well-conditioned athlete and we are happy with what he is going to bring."
Jagr split last season with the Dallas Stars and Boston Bruins, scoring a combined 16 goals and 19 assists in 45 games. The NHL’s active leading scorer added 10 assists in helping the Bruins reach the Stanley Cup final, but he did not score a post-season goal. He signed with Dallas last summer, and started the year playing in Europe due to the NHL lockout.
The 16 regular-season goals would have led the Devils last season and his 35 points would have been one behind team leader Patrik Elias.
"He is still a top six forward," Lamoriello said.
Kovalchuk, who walked away from $77 million left on a contract that he signed in 2010, had 11 goals and 20 assists in a season limited to 37 games mostly by a shoulder injury.
Jagr had told his agent, Petr Svoboda, a former NHL defenceman, that he wanted to stay in the Eastern Conference.
"There was only one thing on my mind, I wanted to stay in the NHL," Jagr said, adding Russia’s KHL was not an option.
Besides Kovalchuk, the Devils also lost forward David Clarkson to Toronto via free agency. Last summer, they lost captain Zach Parise to Minnesota in free agency after New Jersey advanced to the Stanley Cup final.
Lamoriello has tried to fill the holes up front, signing free-agent forwards Ryane Clowe and Michael Ryder away from the New York Rangers and Phoenix Coyotes, respectively. He also re-signed Elias and fellow forward Dainius Zubrus and defenceman Marek Zidlcky. Jacob Josefson has a new contract, and fellow restricted free-agent centre Adam Henrique also is close to a new deal.
On NHL draft day, June 30, New Jersey also acquired goaltender Cory Schneider from Vancouver.
"We like our team right now," Lamoriello said. "Certainly our goaltending is improved. Our defence is improved because of the experience of the young guys and up front we are going to be a four-line team. We have power-play people and penalty killers. This will be one of the bigger teams we’ve had in size."
Jagr has 681 goals and 1,007 assists in 1,391 career regular-season games with Pittsburgh, Washington, the Rangers, Philadelphia, Dallas and Boston. He won Stanley Cups with Pittsburgh in 1990-91 and 1991-92 as well as the league MVP in 1998-99.
Jagr will wear his famous No. 68 with New Jersey. In the Lamoriello era, only three non-goaltenders have ever worn jersey numbers higher than No. 34 in their history — Doug Gilmour (93), Alexander Mogilny (89) and Stephane Richer (44).
A native of the Czech Republic, Jagr is entering his 20th NHL season. He ranks 34th all-time in games played, tenth in goals, 12th in assists and eighth in points. Among current NHL players, he ranks first in goals, assists and points, and second in games played.
Jagr has played for three teams — Flyers, Stars and Bruins — since returning to the NHL in 2011 after a brief stay in the KHL. Kovalchuk will play for SKA St. Petersburg next season, the same team that Jagr played for during the lockout, being chosen their captain.