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Anniversary present for Jagr, Panthers

by Alain Poupart / Florida Panthers

SUNRISE, Fla. -- Nick Bjugstad had awakened from a nap when he looked at his phone and saw a series of text messages from friends. All of them pretty much said the same thing.

"Everyone was like, 'Jagr! Jagr! Jagr is coming tomorrow,'" Bjugstad recalled. "I was excited."

It was Feb. 26, 2015 -- one year ago Friday -- when Bjugstad got the news the Florida Panthers made a trade for Jaromir Jagr.

The excitement over Jagr's arrival has done nothing but increase over the past 12 months for everyone associated with the Panthers -- Jagr included.

"I never really thought about it," the 44-year-old said after a recent practice. "When I got traded (by the New Jersey Devils) and packed my stuff, I didn't know what kind of team we [had] here before I came here. Right now, I'm glad [I was] traded. We have a lot of fun, it's good weather, we're winning, we're in first [place], so everything is just so far, so good."

The Panthers acquired Jagr from the Devils for a second-round pick in the 2015 NHL Draft and a third-round selection in 2016 for three reasons: to help a sluggish offense, to serve as a mentor to Florida's many young players, and to raise the profile of the franchise.

Jagr has done all of the above -- and more.

"I didn't know what we got last year," said Panthers coach Gerard Gallant, whose 11-year NHL playing career ended in 1994-95, Jagr's fifth season. "He was playing OK in Jersey, but I didn't expect him to take off with that line (with Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau) the way they took off. He was 43 years old.

"And then this year, to come to training camp and first thing he tells me, 'Coach, I'm a slow starter, have patience with me,' and 10 games into the season I think [he was] in the top 15 in scoring in the League, probably.

"He played really well. He had a great start to the year. He just keeps playing and keeps working and takes it day by day. I think he's having fun, so that's the main thing."

Jagr leads Florida with 20 goals and 44 points, helping the Panthers to first place in the Atlantic Division and getting closer to their second Stanley Cup Playoff appearance since the 1999-2000 season.

When Florida acquired the right wing last February, Jagr had 11 goals and 18 assists in 57 games. He arrived after scoring two goals in his last 17 games with New Jersey.

One of those goals came against the Panthers, which got the attention of general manager Dale Tallon.

"It was just performance, and we always liked the way he played," Tallon said. "We needed some scoring and we needed a presence and we needed to make us relevant in the marketplace and that's why we did it, and I'm glad we did.

"It's been terrific. He's been a real positive influence on our team and his production has been good. It's what we hoped for."

Jagr had 18 points (six goals and 12 assists) in 20 games with the Panthers last season, and there was little hesitation from either side in bringing him back. He signed a one-year contract the day after the regular season ended.

Jagr had a goal and an assist in his second game with the Panthers, a 4-3 victory against the Tampa Bay Lightning, but his scoreless debut against the Buffalo Sabres was significant because it signaled he was a good fit.

"Right after the first game, I could see it," he said. "I could see the talent. It doesn't take me much. I've played for a long time, so I know. I can see."

With Jagr, Barkov and Huberdeau, the Panthers suddenly found themselves with a top line to match almost any in the NHL.

The Panthers are 26-12-4 when all three are in the lineup, compared to 9-6-3 when one or more of them is missing.

"We knew he had been a good player, even at that age," Huberdeau said. "He was going well in New Jersey, it's just that sometimes the team isn't doing well or the chemistry. We knew he would be a good asset for our team, which is what happened, and he showed it right when he got here."

Bjugstad had high hopes Jagr could make a big impact on the Panthers, and he spoke from experience.

"I knew in New Jersey he had schooled me in the corner a few times," Bjugstad said. "I'd tried pushing him and I knew what a specimen he was after I learned quickly that you can't move him in the corner. So I knew he still had it.

"Obviously he's older, but definitely still has the skills, still has the will to win. When he came here, I didn't doubt him at all. There was no doubt he wasn't going to do anything but help our team."

Tallon said last February he tried to sign Jagr in the summers of 2011, 2012 and 2013 before Jagr signed free-agent contracts with the Philadelphia Flyers, Dallas Stars and Devils.

Tallon revisited the idea of acquiring Jagr after reading media reports suggesting he wasn't happy with the way he was being used in New Jersey. Panthers co-owner Doug Cifu said when Tallon approached him about trading for Jagr, there was no hesitation.

"When [Tallon] called me about Jagr, we had talked about it a little bit before, some of the scouts thought Jagr really had a lot of gas left in the tank and was not being used in the right way in New Jersey in that system," Cifu said. "So we said right away, 'Let's do it. Let's do it because he's the kind of player that is really a game-changer.'

"He's obviously got an unbelievable amount of experience. What we didn't realize is what a good guy he was and how he was really going to be a mentor to [Huberdeau] and to [Barkov] and some of the younger guys, and also the way he interacts with the fans.

"He signed 600, 800 autographs at Fan Fest. I mean, the guy is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He doesn't have to do that stuff. He really believes in what we're doing here. Absolutely, that was a lock. No questions asked."

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