Jaromir Jagr, as inexplicable as he is incorrigible, is the
hottest player in the NHL. Since Nov. 7 he has risen from the
107th-ranked scorer in the league to the fifth by producing 22
points in his last 14 games through Sunday. That streak prompts a
question that has the Capitals squirming: Should they be thrilled
that he is again the leading offensive force in the game, or
should they be furious because the points blitz only underscores
their belief that he has played mostly dispassionate, even sullen
hockey since his trade to the nation's capital in July 2001? ¬∂ In
return for a five-year, $55 million contract extension, he was
supposed to provide marquee value and offensive clout of the sort
that Michael Jordan gave the NBA's Washington Wizards. But any
initial buzz receded after Jagr, coming off four consecutive
scoring titles for the Pittsburgh Penguins in which he averaged
112 points per season, immediately transmogrified into a
point-a-game player. These days the romance between Washington
and the 31-year-old Jagr is as stale as tavern air, and both
parties are open to a divorce. The 6'3", 224-pound right wing
is an extraordinary package of size, strength and skill, but as
one NHL general manager says, "If another team has to assume
Jagr's entire contract, Washington might not be able to sell
him for a dollar."
Jagr finds himself in the same curious straits as the child in
O'Henry's classic short story The Ransom of Red Chief. The
fictional kidnappers of the boy were willing to pay Red Chief's
parents to take back the brat, which is what the Capitals will
have to do to unburden themselves of the high-maintenance Czech.
If the New York Rangers, perhaps the only suitor and a tepid one
at the moment, take Jagr in a trade, it would be irony worthy of
O'Henry: Washington could wind up subsidizing the NHL's
wealthiest team in its acquisition of a player with a career
scoring average of 1.3 points per game, the sixth best in NHL
In late October, according to a Capitals source, general manager
George McPhee told Jagr that if his play did not improve--Jagr
had been held to one point in his last seven games--he would be
even tougher to trade. Jagr immediately flipped the switch.
Reunited with center Robert Lang, a former teammate in Pittsburgh
who was moved up to the first line, Jagr went on a scoring jag,
in effect showcasing himself. With the Capitals in Detroit for a
game on Nov. 24, he told some of the Red Wings to make sure they
mentioned to general manager Ken Holland that he would love to
play in Detroit. Jagr can do it all, including develop an exit
He also started saying the right things on the bench, according
to second-year coach Bruce Cassidy, who insists that over the
past month, Jagr has been vocal in support of his teammates.
"While I'm here, I'm going to do everything I can to help the
team," Jagr said on Dec. 2. "You never know. Maybe we start
winning and everything's going to be great." Oddly, for the
second-worst team (8-17-1-1) in the Eastern Conference, Jagr has
become almost a model, playing at a level that rivals any other
stretch in his career. He scores, backchecks, even kills
penalties effectively in the final seconds of power plays. His
passion stands in stark contrast to the first month of the
season, when, in the opinion of another NHL general manager,
"Jagr had shut it down." The reasons for the disinterested start
are murky--Jagr would not comment on his recent split with
girlfriend Andrea Veresova, a former Miss Slovakia, saying,
"That's personal"--but he did tell Cassidy in October that he was
having difficulty focusing, in part because of the severed
Cassidy and Jagr had gotten into it during a game in Dallas on
Oct. 17, after the wing's glacial return to the bench on a line
change. Cassidy, whose team had been penalized twice for too many
men on the ice in the first four games, told him to step on it.
Jagr retorted, "Do you want me to jump on the guys on the bench?"
Cassidy and his star traded barbs as TV cameras recorded the
moment. "Jags has a past, a reputation for being a coach kill--,"
Cassidy says, catching himself, "for being tough on coaches. I
don't think he dislikes me. He dislikes authority."
By turns, Jagr is ebullient or downtrodden, a middle ground
seemingly beyond him. He is as capable of pumping life into a
team with a riotously creative goal as he is of sucking the
oxygen out of a dressing room by sulking. Capitals left wing Kip
Miller, who also played with him in Pittsburgh, says that Jagr's
emotions reflect the success of his team. "It all comes from his
desire to win, for the team to do well," Miller says. "People say
it's because he's a moody guy, but I don't know too many MVPs of
the league"--Jagr won the Hart Trophy in 1999--"who are happy
when they're not scoring."
He was scoring in the postseason last spring, getting seven
points in six games, but Washington nonetheless suffered a
disheartening first-round playoff loss to the Tampa Bay
Lightning. In the aftermath of that defeat, the Capitals decided
to demolish their three-line system and create four lines based
on accountability and more equitable ice time. That meant Jagr's
ice time during even-strength play would be reduced. They also
tried to revamp a middling power play, putting a premium on shots
from point men Sergei Gonchar and Peter Bondra. A lefthanded
shot, Bondra likes to sneak to the right circle for one-timers,
which is where Jagr usually lingers when he's on the same unit.
The unworkable power play induced Cassidy to try Jagr on what, in
essence, was a second unit, giving him man-advantage leftovers
with Miller and Mike Grier. Jagr publicly griped about his
power-play minutes in Toronto on Oct. 24, then again in a
sit-down with Cassidy a short time later.
The coach capitulated, putting Jagr back with the top unit on the
condition that he set up along the goal line on the left side and
play like a net-crashing power forward. Habits, however, are
difficult to break. Last week, in a 4-1 road victory over the New
York Islanders that gave the Capitals their only two-game winning
streak of the season, Jagr often set up at the right half-boards
on the power play. "What we thought about in the summer seems
nice on paper, but it's tough to make it work when guys want
their minutes," Cassidy says. "We didn't win [early in the
season], so now we're catering to our star guys. Jags has input.
He's a smart hockey guy, and I listen to him."
But Cassidy also sees the error of his ways. "Sometimes it
becomes too much," he says of empowering the stars. "You lose
your identity as a coach. I'm trying to get some of that back,
get more credibility in the locker room."
Even though he's performed on a diminished level in Washington,
Jagr's acquisition has made hockey sense for the team--he led the
team in scoring his first two seasons, averaging 78 points, while
the three prospects dealt to Pittsburgh for him, forwards Kris
Beech and Michal Sivek and defenseman Ross Lupaschuk, have
combined to accumulate only 32 points. The fiscal end of the deal
has been more problematic. When McPhee made the trade, Jagr had
two years left on his existing contract at about $20 million
total. The Capitals gave him the $55 million extension plus an
option for 2008-09 at another $11 million if he reached easily
Jagr makes almost a quarter of the team's $47 million payroll,
and in being held to that budget, McPhee has been handcuffed in
trying to fix a subpar defense. (The payroll is roughly the same
as last year's, and owner Ted Leonsis says the Capitals have been
losing an average of $18 million per season since he bought them
in 1999.) Last month, for instance, McPhee recalled unseasoned
minor league goalie Rastislav Stana to back up No. 1 netminder
Olaf Kolzig (regular No. 2 goalie Sebastian Charpentier had
suffered a hip injury) instead of promising prospect Maxime
Ouellet because Stana's NHL contract pays him $800,000 less than
Ouellet's. Says Leonsis, "In hindsight, no hockey player is worth
Jagr has his own economic issues. According to documents obtained
by SI, an IRS tax lien against Jagr for $3.2 million remained
open as of Nov. 25; he has a $219,000 judgment against him
stemming from a lawsuit in Pennsylvania; and he has borrowed
money against an insurance policy with Standard Security Life
Insurance. Jagr told SI the lien is being resolved and his
finances are "fine."
The struggling Capitals, with the second-worst point total (18)
in the NHL at week's end, are going nowhere, but Jagr is ready
for anything. "There are a lot of rumors about trades," he said
after his two-point night on Long Island last week. "I don't
worry about it."
If indeed this is his Capitals swan song, the tune will be Hail
to the Red Chief.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY LOU CAPOZZOLA LOVE LOST Jagr has little to say to reporters, but he did tell his coach that a split with his girlfriend earlier this season caused him to lose his focus.
COLOR PHOTO: JOE GIZA/REUTERS PUSHOVER After averaging 112 points a season with the Penguins, Jagr has seen his numbers drop dramatically in Washington.
COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA LOOKING FOR AN EXIT Even with Jagr's 14-game hot stretch, the Capitals won only five. Next stop New York?
Last month Jagr told some Red Wings to mention to general manager
Ken Holland that he would LOVE TO PLAY IN DETROIT.
"Jags has a past, a reputation for being a coach kill--," Cassidy
says, catching himself, "FOR BEING TOUGH ON COACHES."