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Pucks and PR

Because hockey is more than just a game

The playoffs are done. The NHL hardware will soon be handed out in Las Vegas. And future NHL stars will soon be drafted. That can only mean one thing – Free Agent Frenzy!

Thanks to the wonderful determination of TSN, Free Agency has joined the ranks of Trade Deadline as a hockey holiday. We mark it on calendars and find excuses to abandon work, family and personal commitments.

For summer 2011 a familiar name is coming back into the rumour mill. Jaromir Jagr appears set to return to the NHL after three years in the KHL. And according to TSN, via MLive.com and the Detroit Free Press, Jagr has a wish list of five teams. So beyond the potential moral victory for the NHL as its former star returns from the big, bad KHL, which of these five reported teams will benefit most from acquiring Jagr?

Pittsburgh Penguins

The site of Jagr’s glory days, the Penguins would only add to an all-star roster with his return. The health of Sidney Crosby continues to be a negative story for the Penguins. So Crosby’s return coupled with signing Jagr would be cause for a publicity and promotion campaign of epic proportion. The major issue is cap space. According to capgeek.com, the Penguins have 19 players signed for next season with $2.4 million in cap space.

There are several key free agents that the Penguins need to consider resigning. Maxime Talbot and Tyler Kennedy to name a couple. So unless Crosby is still injured and placed on LTIR, it would take a lot of creativity to find room for Jagr.

Washington Capitals

The site of Jagr’s lowest point in his career, Washington continues to be mentioned in big free agent discussions. Granted, the Washington team of 2011-12 is much different from the one Jagr was part of, but both Jagr and the fans must still remember his time there. Jagr wasn’t a bad player in Washington. In his two full season he had 79 and 77 points. However, he was shouldered with much of the blame for the team’s inability to be Stanley Cup contenders.

Jagr would fit well into the Russian theme that Washington has created, but the team continues to battle the image of a playoff bust. Given Jagr’s previous image in Washington, would the team really gain any brownie points by signing him? Or would his return only make a nervous fan base even more jittery?

Detroit Red Wings

At first Detroit seemed to be a strange choice for Jagr. But in terms of cup contenders, there are few better than Detroit. It’s also a team with a recent history of adding aging stars and getting decent performance from them. The strength of Detroit’s core makes them marketing gold, but the realities of the Detroit economy trumps it.

As an organization, Detroit has deep pockets but rarely likes to spend to the cap. The team continues to have the image of an organization with good money sense, strategic signings and overall stability. In Detroit, Jagr would play second fiddle to Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, and both the team and player would benefit from that reality. The biggest issue will be Niklas Lindstrom’s decision. Should he return, and Jagr could be signed at a reasonable cap hit, there is nothing but benefits for Detroit. If Lindstrom retires, the team will need to shift focus to reorganizing their defense. Signing Jagr in that situation would only serve to hurt their organizational image of stability and strategic decision making.

Montreal Canadiens

Montreal is possibly the team with the most to lose by signing Jagr. The Canadiens are a team that sits on the fringe of Stanley Cup contention. When their roster performs at its potential, few teams are as offensively skilled. But the fans in Montreal demand the most of any hockey market. Jagr’s performance in Russia and during the Olympics demonstrated his raw skill remains a factor. However, as a team, Montreal cannot afford to sign a 39 year old who hasn’t played in the NHL for three seasons.

Montreal needs youth and size. While Scott Gomez would welcome the chance to have someone else taking focus for offensive output, the Canadiens have bigger concerns. Only three defensemen from last season are signed for next season, so addressing their own free agents is more important. Only then can they look externally.

More than any other NHL market, the Canadiens must make decisions with their fans’ opinions in mind. Risks need to be measurable and defensible. Signing Jagr is neither.

New York Rangers

In terms of image, having Jagr return to the Rangers is pretty good. He left the organization on a fairly positive note and he could be the right kind of veteran presence. The reality is that fans in New York would react much better to other signings. With the impending buyout of Chris Drury, there is a light at the end of the tunnel for the cap space challenged Rangers.

Ultimately, fans in New York are smart about their hockey. And Jagr is not what they need or want. Brad Richards is front and centre in their minds and spending valuable cap dollars on Jagr would serve little business or hockey purpose. Aside from a slight sense of nostalgia, which could be marketed in the same way as Adam Foote and Peter Forsberg were marketing tools for Colorado, the move would do little to help raise fan hopes.

And the winner is…

There are plenty of factors, but in the end Pittsburgh would gain the most from signing Jagr. In hockey only one thing matters – the Stanley Cup. Pittsburgh has a team that fans are excited about. The team has brought them a championship in the recent past. And in Jagr they have a former star who helped bring them their first cup. Nothing feels better than seeing a player hoist the cup while wearing your team’s jersey. Jagr has done that twice for Pittsburgh.

Jagr would have to prove himself to any other fan base. Other teams would have to do more to sell the decision to fans. In Pittsburgh, there is a preexisting relationship.

Nothing sells better than a product that consumers are already comfortable with.

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