Jaromir Jagr sees bright future for Florida Panthers, could come back to team

Jaromir Jagr likes what he sees in Florida. Might he stick around for a while? Robert Mayer/USA TODAY Sports

TORONTO -- Just so we get this out of the way right off the hop, Jaromir Jagr isn't limiting his decision on his playing future to next season.

"I still think I have at least seven years left in my body, to be honest with you," the 43-year-old winger said Thursday after the Florida Panthers' morning skate at Air Canada Centre.

There was a slight smile as he said it, but it wasn't delivered as a one-timer. Somewhere in there, Jagr probably actually believes it.

Hey, Gordie Howe played into his 50s, right?

"I still feel like I can play the game and I love the game," Jagr said. "It’s the most important thing. As long as I stay healthy, I feel like I can still produce and help anybody."

He certainly has had an impact since being acquired from the New Jersey Devils, with his line with Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau combining for 24 points in 11 games heading into Thursday's game against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

"He's been real good, especially for the two kids he's playing with," Panthers head coach Gerard Gallant said. "Their game has taken off another step. They've played really well since Christmas on, but since Jaromir's got there with Huberdeau and Barkov, they've played great hockey for us. Obviously, he's a Hall of Fame guy that's been really good for our club."

Sure, Jagr has slowed down, but he remains strong on the puck and of course continues to have all-world vision and passing ability. Gallant actually played against Jagr way back when.

"He's 43," Gallant said. "He's not as fast and quick as he was, but you see a lot of similarities [from his younger days]. It's hard to get the puck from him. When he got the puck down low, the defensemen have a tough time getting the puck off him. That's what makes him a real good player. He controls the puck, he goes to the net and the guy works out every day real hard. He stays in good shape.

"His game's very similar, but without the quickness."

Jagr’s impact has been felt just as much off the ice, if not more. The team’s young players have gravitated toward him and are eating up everything he has to offer.

"He gives us a lot of advice on the ice and even on the bench, he’s offering up tips and it’s really helped us," said Huberdeau, who was born in June 1993, three full seasons after Jagr entered the NHL and had already won two Stanley Cups with Pittsburgh.

By the time Barkov was born in September 1995, Jagr had five NHL seasons under his belt. Now they are linemates. It’s surreal.

"First off, he’s a legend already, I think he played like 300 games before I was born," Barkov said with a smile. "So it’s kind of weird, but I like it. I just try to learn every day from him, everything I can. He’s a good guy, too."

Jagr has embraced the role of mentor.

"I know how important it is to give them advice,” Jagr said. "I know they’re going to find out on their own, but maybe a little bit later. If I give them something and they take the advice, it’s going to be good for them. Like I did. When I was younger, I had so many great players around me who tried to help me all the time. It helped my hockey career."

Panthers management has been so enthralled with what they’ve seen from Jagr on and off the ice that it's believed there is mutual interest in keeping this thing going, and that it's not out of the question that the Panthers re-sign Jagr before the season is over depending on whether the sides can find common ground on numbers.

The pending UFA winger wouldn't tip his hand Thursday, but he did mention that when he’s happy somewhere, he doesn't look to leave.

At the end of the day, there’s a financial negotiation that needs to take place. One thing’s for sure, though. Jagr sees a team that’s going to contend in years to come.

"To be honest with you guys, and maybe this will surprise a lot of people, but the talent we’ve got here, it’s a very, very talented team," said Jagr, his new team clearly a revelation to him once he got there.

"Hopefully we can get in -- it’s going to be tough because Ottawa is playing very well -- but next year and the year after that, this team is going to surprise a lot and a lot of teams. In a year or two, this team is going to be on top."

In the meantime, the Panthers need a few breaks to get in. Jagr is doing his best to improve the team’s fortunes, with an ugly wig hanging in his dressing room stall. It was given to him by a fan after his first game in Florida.

"It’s for good luck. Hopefully, it’s going to work," Jagr said with his trademark smile.

Bank on that smile being in the NHL for a few more years.