Remembering like it was yesterday
Well, I didn't presume when I wrote this post on Jaromir Jagr that I'd win over many Washington Capitals fans — and from Eric McErlain's rebuttal, that seems to be the case. Eric points to something he wrote about Jagr while he was still playing for the Capitals:
But when you're getting paid $10 million per year, you better show up, even if we ask you to kill penalties or drive the Zamboni. Right now, Jagr isn't even doing that, and he richly deserves the boos he's getting from the Caps faithful. In fact, maybe it's time for Leonsis to cut his losses completely, and ship Jagr and a passel of high priced veterans out of town for some kids who actually care. Becuase today, it seems like Jagr just doesn't give a damn.Now, if Ted Leonsis truly believed when he wooed Jagr with that massive, $77-million contract in 2001 that he was getting anything other than what Jagr was — a selfish, whiny and, yes, spoiled superstar — then I'll heartily proclaim AOL to be the greatest Internet service of all time.
The thing is, Washington management and ownership knew exactly what they were getting in Jagr. What they didn't know was what in the world to do with it.
When The Hockey News' senior writer Mark Brender visited Jagr in New York earlier this year and asked the five-time Art Ross Trophy winner what the difference was, Jagr's answer was far from profound. He said, merely, that he was happy. Happy with his linemates, happy with the city, with the coaches and management — and especially with the worldclass treatment and pampering this team heaped on him.
Rangers GM Glen Sather knew what he had in Jagr, and Sather built something around his moody centrepiece in order to maximize his returns. As we've seen, that approach has worked.
Jagr's first season with Washington was an embarassment. The Capitals seemingly unloaded their entire payroll simply landing the big Czech, and resorted to 34-year-old Peter Bondra and 39-year-old Adam Oates for his offensive support. The team's defence core was, aside from Sergei Gonchar and Ken Klee, essentially a minor-league cast on which Sylvain Cote, Frantisek Kucera, Joe Reekie and Rob Zettler all played a considerable amount.
All four retired following that season. (If only Jagr had backchecked!)
After shuttling out Oates at the trade deadline, a veritable white flag that the year was a bust, Washington narrowly missed the playoffs that season. Jagr himself, despite missing 13 games, held up his end of the bargain by finishing fifth in NHL scoring with 79 points.
In the offseason, GM George McPhee canned veteran coach Ron Wilson — who joined the San Jose Sharks soon after, where he led the team to a 104-point season and division title.
The Capitals? They brought in career-minor league coach Bruce Cassidy, at the time one of the league's youngest coaches and a guy who was in over his head with a caustic megastar like Jagr. Also brought in was Jagr pal Robert Lang, who had a decent season. The defence, meanwhile, wasn't improved.
It was this season, barely more than a year after he had arrived in Washington, that the talk of trading Jagr began.
Now, I'm not going to defend Jagr's tantrum in Washington because it was, well, rather childlike. That said, it was also entirely predictable. And — I would argue — entirely avoidable.
The thing is, from the opposition blueline in, Jagr's one of the best players to have ever played the game. He's a surefire Hall of Famer merely for his explosive talents, but what he's not is a one-man team.
Because that's not hockey. As good a player as a Nicklas Lidstrom or a Joe Thornton or a Miikka Kiprusoff is, none are good enough to hoist a team on their shoulders. No one — aside from perhaps Orr, Gretzky or Lemieux — was ever that good.
To me, the Capitals approach to team-building in 2001 was to drop a sack of coin on one moody superstar and let him somehow lead them to glory.
Now we're going to blame the prototypical whiny, uninspired player for merely playing out his part the way it was always going to happen?
Talk about selective memory.