May 7, 2013

From NEHJ: The Old Man and the Swede

By Jesse Connolly

Jaromir Jagr (left) and Carl Soderberg almost couldn't be more different, but the two late-season Bruins roster additions have the same goal: Get the Cup back in the hands of the Black and Gold. (Getty Images)

With just under three minutes gone in the game between the Bruins and Panthers at TD Garden on April 21, Jaromir Jagr came flying down the left wing, just as he’s done a million times before in his NHL career. As the future Hall of Famer chased the puck around the net, Florida defenseman T.J. Brennan misjudged how much time he had to get rid of the puck and could only watch as the Bruins winger took it away from him.

Jagr zipped a pass into the slot, which Carl Soderberg quickly sent back toward the half wall. No. 68 gathered the puck in, drove to the center of the offensive zone and wristed a laser beam past a helpless Jacob Markstrom.

For Jagr, 41, it was goal No. 681 and point No. 1,687 in an illustrious career that’s now spanned 23 years. For Soderberg, a 27-year-old rookie whom the Bruins have spent the better part of six years trying to lure to North America from his native Sweden, the assist marked his first NHL point.

You’d be hard-pressed to find two résumés as vastly different on the Bruins’ roster as those of Jagr and Soderberg. But the Czech vet and the young Swede have both been brought to Boston to partake in the same quest: Get the Bruins back to the promised land and help them recapture the Stanley Cup.

“His career speaks for itself,” GM Peter Chiarelli said after acquiring Jagr in a trade with the Stars. “He’s a strong player, protects the puck well, consistent with our style, in the sense that there’s a physical element to his game. He’s good on the half wall, really good release, shot; he’s just a real good player. I know he’s 41 now, but he’s been one of their best players in Dallas; last year he was one of Philly’s best players.”

A nine-time All-Star and a five-time Art Ross Trophy winner as the league’s leading scorer, Jagr was arguably the game’s most dynamic player in the mid-1990s and into the 2000s in Pittsburgh, where he cemented his status as a legend. After stints with the Capitals and Rangers, he went home to the Czech Republic and spent three seasons in the KHL before signing with the Flyers in 2011.

At the time of his trade to Boston, the crafty winger long known for his wondrous mullet was Dallas’ leader in goals and points. Not bad for a guy who’d already won two Stanley Cups before one of his new teammates, Dougie Hamilton, was even born, right?

“It’s pretty cool,” Bruins defenseman Matt Bartkowski, who grew up in Pittsburgh rooting for the Pens, said of the surreal experience of playing alongside Jagr. “Every year I was there, he was the captain and the best player. You never think that’d happen growing up. It’s pretty special.”

Bartkowski played in six games for Boston during the 2010-11 Cup-winning campaign, and was with the team throughout the playoffs as one of the Black Aces. He sees the acquisition of Jagr as being quite similar to one that paid huge dividends for the Black and Gold in their bid to end a 39-year-long championship drought.

“Well, it helps,” Bartkowski said of having someone with Jagr’s wisdom around. “(Mark) Recchi was here with the Cup run and he was the veteran with experience. Now you have ‘Jags’. He’s got two Cups under him, he’s been captain of many teams. He’s an unbelievable player, one of the greats. He’s a great team guy, too. It’s good to have a guy like that here.”

Anyone who’s paid attention to Chiarelli’s maneuvers at or near the deadline knows how much the Bruins GM values having acclaimed veterans with a championship pedigree on his roster.

In 2009, Chiarelli reeled in a then-41-year-old Recchi, a Cup winner in Pittsburgh and Carolina, from the Lightning for a pair of prospects and a second-round pick — the same haul that Jagr fetched. In 2010, the addition of that ilk was Miroslav Satan, yet another Cup winner in Pittsburgh (2009), who signed on as a free agent midway through the year and was a clutch contributor during his lone season with the club. The pattern continued last year when former Bruin Brian Rolston, who won it all with the Devils in the ’90s and had a wealth of postseason experience, was brought back to Boston in a trade with the Isles.

Their commonalities are as clear as day and make it obvious why a player like Jagr was on Chiarelli’s radar for quite some time. But the key to bringing him on board was making sure Jagr not only knew he wasn’t expected to be “the man” for Boston, but was willing to take on a role different than what he’s been used to throughout his career — including in Dallas, where he played on the top line.

“ ‘You don’t have to be the guy, but you’re an important piece,’ ” Chiarelli recalled telling Jagr. “ ‘You band together with your teammates; and you’ve got the experience, you’ve got a certain skill set, size, whatever you want to call it, that will benefit the rest of the group. But, really, you have experience and you want to win still.’ That was an important question, and he was very receptive to that.”

Through his first few weeks as a Bruin, however, the guy brought in to be a secondary threat was a first-rate stud for the Black and Gold, racking up nine points through 10 games. As far as No. 68 is concerned, it doesn’t matter where he slots into the lineup.

“Most of the nights I’m playing on the third line, that’s what coach wants: to have three or four lines that can score goals going into the playoffs. I think that’s the way we have to play,” said Jagr. “That’s what you’re going to need going into the playoffs, to be able to have all the lines score goals. That’s why other teams can’t just shut down one line, there are other lines that can score goals and I think that’s pretty important to have that going into the playoffs.”

Playing alongside Jagr on the third line is Soderberg, who was acquired in a 2007 trade with St. Louis. The enigmatic, 6-foot-3 forward achieved full-fledged cult-hero status before finally arriving in Boston, as many fans began to sarcastically doubt his actual existence and even dubbed him “The Yeti.”

“I played in (Sweden’s) second league and I wanted to try the first league,” Soderberg said when asked what took so darn long to come to North America. “I had some great seasons when I was younger, and then I had an eye injury and was out for a year. So maybe that’s why.”

Getting him to come over wasn’t easy, as the B’s — with Soderberg finally willing to give the NHL a try, agreeing to a three-year deal with Boston — first had to wait for his team’s (Linkoping) playoff run to end, then had to overcome the Swedish Ice Hockey Federation’s bid to prohibit the gifted forward from leaving his homeland behind.

But that long-awaited first impression was a good one, as far as coach Claude Julien was concerned.

“He’s a big, strong guy,” Boston’s bench boss said. “He’s a good skater. I saw some good things. We put him on the power play there at the end, after practice, (watched) how he’s handling the puck. We’re trying to get a feel of what he can bring, too. The feeling was pretty optimistic. I liked what I saw from him.”

As if joining a team for Game 43 of a 48-game season isn’t hard enough, Soderberg has other challenges, including adjusting to a new system, living in a new country and playing on an ice surface with noticeably different dimensions than what he’d become used to in Europe.

“Definitely, it’s an adjustment for him, but I think we can help him through it,” Tyler Seguin, who gained some experience playing on a bigger sheet of ice while with EHC Biel in Switzerland during the NHL lockout, said following Soderberg’s debut with the Black and Gold. “I know for myself, I was talking to him a lot and I still am going to. I feel like I’m pretty familiar with it going over there myself this year. It’s the first game for him. I thought he played in multiple different situations and he’s only going to get better.”

Soderberg is optimistic he can improve and adjust on the fly.

“It’s high speed of course,” he said of North American hockey. “It’s better play than in Sweden, and it’s been tough on me. I haven’t played in a long time, so hopefully it’s getting better and better.”

One thing Soderberg doesn’t have to worry about, however, is being warmly welcomed in “the room,” as the Bruins’ roster has long been a melting pot of cultures.

“I can speak from experience and the universal language in the dressing room is English,” Julien said when asked about having so many players from across the world. “We’ve all had to adapt, whether guys speak to each other in a one-on-one basis in their language, I think that’s just a normal thing. But guys have always been good about, when they’re in a group, they make sure everyone understands.

“I don’t think that’s an issue because, at the end of the day, the goal of Jagr coming in, the goal of Soderberg coming in, and all these other guys, (Wade) Redden, so on and so forth, is the same goal as we’ve had — we want to win the Cup.”

If they can get the help they need from their wily Czech winger and promising Swede, that might be a mission in which the Bruins can succeed.

This article originally appeared in the May 2013 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Twitter: @JesseNEHJ