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It probably is not an overstatement to say that prior to the lockout the Rangers were the most pathetic organization in professional sports. They spent the most money, brought in the most high-profile players and had failed to make the playoffs seven years in a row and counting.
Just prior to the lockout, the Rangers acquired Jaromir Jagr in a trade from the Washington Capitals, which for most fans was the final straw. The team had completely lost any semblance of an identity and was now tied down by the weight of the contract of a once great, but now disgruntled superstar.
With fan interest at its lowest point since prior to the 1994 Stanley Cup, Sports Illustrated picked the Rangers to finish dead last in the NHL entering the 2005-2006 season, a prognostication that I believe may have come true if not for an unforgettable opening-game in Philadelphia against the Flyers.
Seemingly out of nowhere, Jagr scored two power-play goals in the third period to both tie and give the Rangers the lead, cementing a confidence-building win that would set the tone for the rest of the season.
The rest, as they say, is history. Jagr went on a tear the likes of which, when considering both the situation and the individual accomplishment, I personally have never seen in sports. With the help of Michael Nylander and Marty Straka, and the emergence of guys like Henrik Lundqvist, Petr Prucha, Michal Rozsival and Marek Malik, Jagr not only led the Rangers to playoffs and their first 100-point season in over a decade.
But he completely revived New York’s passion for hockey, which had been crushed by the disgrace of the pre-lockout era. Jagr dominated the league en route to a ridiculous 54-goal and 123-point season and, in this writer’s opinion, was absolutely robbed of an MVP award by Joe Thornton (I don’t think MVPs should be switching teams midway through the season).
In his historic 2005-2006 season, Jagr became the sixth player in team history to reach 100 points and broke the Rangers single season goals and points record, previously held by Adam Graves and Jean Ratelle respectively.
In just one season Jagr had gone from public enemy No. 1 to Rangers legend, a status cemented after he was named the 24th captain in team history just prior to the 2006-2007 season. After being announced as captain to a raucous Madison Square Garden crowd, Jagr scored on his first shift of the season less than one minute into the game.
Jagr tailed off slightly over the course of his next two seasons in New York. In total, however, he managed to accumulate 124 goals in three-plus seasons and did not miss one single regular season game. Although he was never able to lead the Rangers to much playoff success, he did produce at over a point-per-game pace in 23 playoff contests with the team.
What else is there to say? The guy is literally the reason why I am the Rangers fan that I am today. He brought the team out of a dark spiral and paved the way for the youth movement and success that we as fans are experiencing today.
If not for the emergence of a certain goaltender Jagr would easily be No. 1 this list. For a guy that played so many years on a hated division rival, the amount of appreciation, respect and gratitude that Jagr has earned from Rangers fans is simply remarkable.