EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — He is just 29 and among the top two or three players in the NHL and yet he hit the trading block last week. He has worn out his welcome in Pittsburgh with his moods, his mercurial effort, his tendency to exercise his superstar's carte blanche and clomping off the ice midway through practice the other day, never to return. Was it his strained right shoulder, which he says has/hasn't been hampering him? A new injury, maybe? "Bad hairdo," Penguins forward Jaromir Jagr joked.
But in Pittsburgh, at least, the laugh track has stopped. Maybe it will be different if Jagr and his $10 million salary, five NHL scoring titles and unfathomable angst are indeed moved to the Islanders or Rangers.
But why would it?
Jagr would've been cut more slack if the Penguins hadn't been slouching toward their elimination game Tuesday night against the Devils, or if he had managed to score a goal, an assist--anything--in the five games these Eastern Conference finals lasted.
But instead of building on their stirring come-from-behind road win in Game 2, Pittsburgh came slinking back to Jersey Tuesday night down 3 games to 1 in a suddenly lopsided series. The Pens lost Games 3 and 4 at home by 3-0 and 5-0 scores. Though Jagr said, "I have never been this embarrassed in hockey" following the second whitewashing, that was after he already decided he didn't need the practice. And he certainly didn't fling himself into Tuesday night's game like a man possessed.
The defending champion Devils won, 4-2, and now go winging into a dream Stanley Cup Finals against the Colorado Avalanche that starts Saturday in Denver.
Once again, despite all his talent, Jagr had the sort of invisible night that drives Pittsburgh fans crazy and sends hockey traditionalists yearning instead for some crooked-nose net crasher--a winger who's as big and strong as the 6-foot-2, 240-pound Jagr but has nothing against barreling into the corners or carrying the puck up the ice on a heart-pounding rush.
The Rangers would be better off with one of those sharp-elbowed crooked-nose guys--better yet, three or four of them. Someone who can give them not just goals, but the sort of fire and attitude Mark Messier used to inspire, or the sort of force the Devils' Jason Arnott (two goals), Bobby Holik and Scott Stevens brought again into Tuesday night's game.
Jagr to the Islanders? It would be a disaster. Just-hired Islanders coach Peter Laviolette has never been an NHL head coach before, and Jagr hastened the exits of the Pens' last two head coaches, Kevin Constantine and soon-to-be-fired Ivan Hlinka. At least with Penguins teammate Mario Lemieux back now to play locker-room sheriff, Jagr couldn't possibly yelp too much when possibly the greatest player in NHL history joined the criticism against him, as Lemieux recently did. So Jagr brooded. For weeks, he has sleepwalked through long stretches of games. When asked beforehand whether the Pens could win and stay alive Tuesday night, Jagr said no matter when the Penguins bowed out this postseason, "I will be blamed."
Whatever happened to hissing "I haven't even thought about losing"? Or snatching a stick from the rack and rumbling, "Boys, follow me"?
"This," a contrite Jagr said afterward, "it's probably the worst (ever series) for me."
Lemieux has been asked often if the talk that Jagr would be traded at season's end was wearing on Jagr, and Lemieux said: "I don't think that should ... . You'd have to ask him. Hopefully, he's happy. I mean, this is the best time of his life. He's a young guy who has had a great career so far. He's making $10 million a year. This has to be the best time of his life, and I'm not so sure he realizes that."
Clearly not. So why would a mere change of scenery make a difference? Jagr won two Stanley Cups in 11 seasons with Pittsburgh. But it's worth noting that he's won zero Cups without Lemieux, an asterisk that suggests despite all his scoring titles, Jagr is more Scottie Pippen than Michael Jordan -- a star, for sure, but not the red-meat eating kind that could carry either New York franchise to the top of the heap, King of the Hill, A-Number One ...
You get the point. Jagr had zero against the Devils. He and the Penguins are done.