Friday, April 07, 2006

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.

Why not?

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.



At 6:45 a.m., April 07, 2006, Blogger alyosha mcbain said...

Jagr's time in Washington also was the first time in his NHL career that he was undisputably the leading star on his team...his time with the Penguins was always spent in the shadow of Lemieux, even when Super Mario wasn't playing with the team. Perhaps he can handle the focus a little better after things went wrong for him and the Capitals in D.C.

As a Ranger fan, I'm ecstatic that he has regained his dominant game. He has had the biggest impact on his team of any MVP candidate.

At 12:33 p.m., April 07, 2006, Anonymous snafu said...

It is too easy to lay most of the blame for Jagr's ineffectiveness at the feet of the Capitals.

If the Caps are to blame for having overly high expectations of Jagr, he is equally to blame for accepting the responsibility. That is what he was selling hence the incredible price tag.

Both parties have a duty to gauge each other's expectations and then decide if these are realistic and achievable. I believe by signing that contract, Jagr was telling the Capitals he could deliver what was expected. Clearly he could not and did not appear too interested in trying very hard. I personally am not going to jump on the Jagr bandwagon now and accept that he is a selfless leader deserving of the league's highest accolades.

He may be a great player however he applied his craft selectively. It is unfortunate that Leonsis did not have a “your satisfaction or your money back” guarantee. Wouldn’t that be something!

At 7:01 a.m., April 08, 2006, Blogger alyosha mcbain said...

I have to agree with James on this one. Jagr's time in DC was more productive than the common wisdom says it was. He averaged more than a point per game with the Caps during the heyday of the clutch-n-grab, 2.31 goals a game NHL. Plus the Caps at that time were a team with a rapidly aging roster and few prospective impact players. Seeing him with Ovechkin would have been something, though.
Jagr was also dogged by his chronic groin problems there, something that (thankfully) hasn't affected him in NYC the way it did with the Capitals.

The new rules (plus some sympathetic and nicely complementary teammates on the Rangers) have helped his play immensely. I think that the expectations of Jagr were realistic in Washington, but that boring-ass town filled with uptight white collar criminals might not have been his cup of tea.

At 1:33 p.m., April 08, 2006, Blogger Djlethal01 said...

If the caps built a Czech empire around him like the Rangers then we could probably get the same results, Lang & Bondra (even though he is from Slovkia) were not nearly enough. Altough he put up points they werent the mega-elite stuff you were expecting as a caps fan. As for Bruce Cassidy... I think that name sends down shivers of every cap fan. I still find it some sort of paradox that GMGM (McPhee) still has his position.


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