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PHT Time Machine: Remembering Jaromir Jagr trade nobody won

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Throughout the summer we will be taking a look back at some significant moments in NHL history. This is the PHT Time Machine. Today we look back at the Pittsburgh Penguins trading Jaromir Jagr to the Washington Capitals, a trade that probably everybody regrets — but still had a stupid way of working out.

On the ice the Pittsburgh Penguins have been a remarkably successful franchise over the past 35 years. Five championships, an extensive list of Hall of Famers, probably four of the top-10 players to play in the NHL during that stretch, and a pile of individual scoring titles and MVP awards.

Off the ice, there have been some dark times, specifically when it came to the teams financial and ownership situations.

The darkest of those times was no doubt during the late 1990s and early 2000s when the team went through bankruptcy (for a second time!), was playing in a crumbling dump of a building, and at one point in 1999 it seemed possible — if not likely — that the team might even be completely dissolved.

Then, 17 years ago Wednesday, just a couple of months after a run to the Eastern Conference Final that was led by the stunning return to the ice by team owner Mario Lemieux, they traded Jaromir Jagr — at that point the second greatest player in team history and the league’s reigning scoring champion — to the Washington Capitals for a collection of prospects.

The Background

Jagr being traded was not a shock. It had become inevitable for a variety of reasons, ranging from the team’s unsettled financial situation to Jagr’s desire to, well, get the heck out of Pittsburgh.

The shock was where he ended up going and how little the team received in return for what was, at the time, the league’s most dominant player.

While everyone today knows the Penguins-Capitals rivalry as being centered around Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, the history goes back much further than those two superstars. Throughout the 1990s, Penguins-Capitals was a regular matchup in the playoffs and it had its share of madness. Probably even more than the current rivalry does.

During the 1999-00 series, a scheduling conflict at Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh forced the series to shift back to the Steel City for Games 2 and 3 (as opposed to Game 3 and 4 as the format usually dictates), a significant disadvantage for the Capitals at the start. Naturally, this left them pretty angry and led to then-coach Ron Wilson proclaiming before the start of the series that he wouldn’t mind playing all seven games in Pittsburgh and that his team would win anyway.

The Penguins won Game 1 in Washington a couple of days later by a 7-0 margin and won the series in five games.

A few years earlier during the 1996 series, Penguins assistant coach Bryan Trottier and Capitals coach Jim Schoenfeld (he of “have another donut” fame) went nose-to-nose between the benches during a line brawl on the ice.

There was the Petr Nedved four overtime game. There was a regular season game in 1992 between the two teams that turned into such a gong show Lemieux, Jagr, and Kevin Stevens were all ejected, with Jagr earning a 10-game suspension for placing his hands on a referee.

In short, these two teams had a history, and at the time, it typically went in the Penguins’ favor with Jagr playing a central role in a lot of it. He and the Penguins were almost always the obstacle standing between the Capitals and a lengthy playoff run.

Then, after months of speculation that Jagr might be destined for New York (one of the few teams at the time that was thought to be able to afford him), he ended up going to Washington in exchange for prospects Kris Beech, Michal Sivek, and Ross Lupaschuk.

From The Pittsburgh Side 

For Pittsburgh, the name of the game was getting younger and cheaper, and while the names Beech, Sivek, and Lupaschuk will never stand out other than being the answer to a trivia question, the Penguins’ hockey staff was absolutely ecstatic with the return at the time.

At least that is what they said.

At the press conference announcing the trade then-general manager Craig Patrick compared Beech to a Ron Francis-type player, saying “we feel he can be that type of franchise player. He’s only 20 years old so you can’t expect that from him today, but we feel that’s what he is going to give us down the road.”

Perhaps the worst thing you can do to a 20-year-old player that was just acquired in a laughably lopsided trade for your best player is to directly compare him to another Hall of Famer. Talk about setting an unreasonable bar that can never, ever be reached.

Patrick went on to explain that the other team most interested in a Jagr trade — the Rangers — was only offering veteran players, while the Penguins wanted youth. That is exactly what the trio he received provided as they were all selected within the top-40 picks of the previous year’s draft. Looking back on it now this would not be a point in their favor as the 1999 draft will probably go down, from top to bottom, as one of the worst drafts in NHL history.

Still, Patrick said at the time when he told his scouting staff about Washington’s offer they responded by “jumping up and down” and that “they loved it.”

Stunningly, they were not the only ones.

Even though Jagr was a dominant player in Pittsburgh, helping the team win two championships and at times almost single-handedly dragging the team to the playoffs and keeping its very existence alive (as he may have done during the 1999 playoffs), his exit from Pittsburgh was not a positive one. He was viewed as a malcontent, a coach-killer, and his “dying alive” remarks soured a significant portion of the Penguins’ fan base.

In the days after the trade the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was filled with letters-to-the-editor from fans absolutely crushing Jagr and celebrating his exit.

Just some of the examples:

Today, 17 years later, all of this is amazing to look back on because we know how it all ended up going for the Penguins.

Together, Beech, Sivek, and Lupaschuk played a grand total of 141 games for the Penguins, scoring 13 goals and 33 total points, while the Penguins were a laughing stock for the better part of the next four seasons, continuing to sell off every decent player they had.

It was ugly.

From the Washington Side

Meanwhile, the immediate reaction in Washington was the exact opposite because the Capitals had acquired the boogeyman that had destroyed them for years and was expected to be the missing piece and final ingredient in a Stanley Cup recipe.

He was joining a team that had Peter Bondra, Adam Oates, Sergei Gonchar, and Olaf Kolzig, all All-Star level players at the time.

The Capitals eventually signed him to a seven-year, $77 million contract, at the time the largest contract in NHL history.

The response from the high rollers in the organization was nothing short of sheer joy.

Owner Ted Leonsis at the introductory press conference: “Welcome to the sixth day of the Jaromir Jagr love-fest. I’m really pleased with how the town has reacted. We almost had a riot at Dulles (airport). We needed a police escort.”

General manager George McPhee: “For the first time in 27 years I think people think we mean business, and we do.”

And later…

“I didn’t sleep it all last Tuesday and Wednesday. I guess I must have been pretty excited. I picked up the papers (the morning after the trade) and said ‘Holy smokes, we pulled it off.”

Head coach Ron Wilson: “The reality of it hit me a few days ago. I’m at my computer making up (hypothetical) lines and I said, ‘My God, Jaromir Jagr!’ I feel like a kid in a toy store who gets told, ‘you can have whatever you want.’ I get to pick the most expensive toy in the store and I get to play with it.”

This, for the record, was the correct reaction. From all of them. They got the best player in hockey, in the prime of his career, got him signed to a contract extension, and did not have to give up anything of value — both then and after the fact — to get him.

This should have been a franchise-altering moment for the Washington Capitals.

It was.

Just not the way anybody expected it to be.

The Result

The Penguins, understandably, went in the tank. Lemieux was never able to stay healthy or recapture the magic he had in his initial return and the full-on rebuild was underway. Everybody saw that coming.

The stunning result is that nothing went according to plan for the Capitals.

Jagr ended up having some of the worst seasons of his career in Washington while the team (after winning consecutive division titles) failed to make the playoffs in his first year with the team. And as one of those hilarious letters to the editor up above correctly predicted, Wilson was, in fact, a dead man walking having been fired after the season and replaced by Bruce Cassidy. Things were only marginally better the following year as the Capitals won the Southeast Division only to lose in the first-round of the playoffs to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

From there, the quest to trade Jagr and completely rebuild the organization was on. The problem the Capitals ran into is that even though Jagr’s production was still among the top players in the league, it was a fraction of what he did during his time in Pittsburgh. There was also a looming collective bargaining situation that made pretty much every team hesitant to take on the biggest contract in the NHL because nobody was fully aware of what the economic situation in the league would look like a few years later.

Finally, during the 2003-04 season, the Capitals found a taker and sent him to the New York Rangers in a one-for-one swap for Anson Carter.

Leonsis said in the aftermath of the trade he had to make it because of the “new economic reality” of the league and that it was the first step in “re-crafting the team.”

The following season was completely wiped out by the 2004-05 NHL lockout. In the years immediately after it, Jagr returned to being one of the best offensive players in the league and missed out on what would have been his sixth scoring title by just two points (his 123 points were second to only Joe Thornton‘s 125). He was also the runner-up for the MVP award. After a few highly successful years in New York he spent three years playing in Russia before returning for a nomadic end to his NHL career that saw him bounce from team-to-team on a yearly basis.

The crazy thing about this trade is that even though it was a spectacular failure for both teams it still ended up setting the stage for what both teams would eventually become.

When Patrick made the trade in Pittsburgh he gave a timeline of five years for when the team would once again be a factor. Five years later the team was back in the playoffs and just a couple of years away from returning to the Stanley Cup Final and ultimately winning it. That success had absolutely nothing to do with any of the players acquired in the Jagr trade but that trade did begin the rebuild that resulted in the team being bad enough to land the draft picks that got them Marc-Andre Fleury, Evgeni Malkin, and Sidney Crosby.

Jagr’s exit out of Washington led to a similar result for the Capitals.

The year Jagr was traded to the Rangers signaled the beginning of a full-scale rebuild in Washington and resulted with the Capitals finishing that season with the second-worst record in the league (ahead of only the Penguins). The Capitals ended up winning the draft lottery the next year and the right to select Alex Ovechkin (the Penguins, picking second, ended up with Malkin and by losing that lottery got an extra lottery ball in the 2005 lottery following the cancellation of the 2004-05 season — that extra lottery ball helped them get Crosby).

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Rangers pay small price to watch Vesey for two more years

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During this time of year, you’re going to see plenty of modest, low-risk signings that usually work out nicely for the teams involved. To an extent, that’s just how restricted free agency works.

Of course, there’s also the notion that players and teams want to avoid salary arbitration hearings, as tears and hard feelings often happened as executives would sometimes ruthlessly argue against someone making extra money.

(Seriously, those discussions might as well have been sponsored by Kleenex.)

It’s nice when you can describe these deals as a win for both sides, and that seems to be the case as the New York Rangers agreed to a two-year “bridge” deal with forward Jimmy Vesey. The New York Post’s Larry Brooks reports that the cap hit will be $2.275 million per season.

All things considered, that’s perfectly fine.

Vesey, 25, hasn’t exactly justified the hype from “#VeseyWatch,” although considering how slow things can be around the time that sweepstakes heat up for unsigned college free agents, should we really complain?

Predators fans probably shouldn’t complain all that much about Vesey opting against signing with Nashville after they drafted him in the third round (66th overall) in 2012, as he hasn’t exactly been lighting the NHL on fire.

In 2017-18, Vesey scored 17 goals and 28 points in 79 games, numbers that were virtually identical to his 2016-17 stats (16 goals, 27 points in 80 contests). Considering that his highest TOI average was 14:20 per night so far during his NHL career, there’s some reason to believe that Vesey could be a more prolific scorer if given additional opportunities.

The problem is that possession stats indicate that the ice tilts in the wrong direction when Vesey is on the ice, though. He’s been a negative influence in that regard, even relative to Rangers teammates.

On the other hand, the Rangers’ issues were likely at least partially systemic, so Vesey could end up thriving thanks to a coaching change that sees David Quinn replace Alain Vigneault.

And that’s where this contract really makes a lot of sense.

The Rangers get to find out if Vesey should be part of the foundation for their rebuild. If not, the term is manageable and the price tag is very fair for a player who – for whatever faults – almost scored 20 goals despite marginal ice time.

From Vesey’s perspective, he gets a chance to prove that he’s worth a heftier, longer-term contract.

It’s all pretty sensible stuff. It’s up to Vesey to show that the Rangers should’ve tried to lock him down for more years, and also to silence anyone who might gripe about all the attention he received not too long ago.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Devils keep it simple after years of aggressive moves

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The New Jersey Devils making a big, splashy (usually smart) move was starting to feel like a summer tradition along the lines of waterslides and family vacations.

Such aggression paid off pretty tangibly, too, as Taylor Hall won a Hart Trophy while leading the Devils to an unlikely berth in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Many franchises would take this as a sign to continue pushing chips further into the table. Instead, the Devils are electing – at least currently – to stay quiet, including allowing trade deadline additions Patrick Maroon and Michael Grabner to walk.

That trend continued on Tuesday, as the Devils locked down some in-house supporting cast members to affordable contracts. GM Ray Shero handed Blake Coleman a three-year contract that carries a $1.8 million cap hit, while Stefan Noesen signed for one year at a similar $1.75M AAV.

Coleman, 26, seems like a solid enough bet. He generated 13 goals and 25 points in 79 games last season despite a modest 8.9 shooting percentage and equally modest reps (an average of 14:24 TOI per game). Considering heavy usage in the defensive zone, his possession stats were respectable.

The story is more or less the same for Noesen, 25. He scored 13 goals and 27 points in 72 games despite even sparser ice time (13:17 on average) and managed even stronger possession stats while being placed in comparable defensive situations as Coleman.

Overall, this seems like solid stuff for useful (but not ground-breaking) players.

Maybe most importantly, the Devils seem like they aren’t putting too much weight in a postseason run that might be difficult to replicate. At the very least, New Jersey can’t reasonably ask Hall to improve on his fantastic 2017-18 campaign; anything close to that would be gravy.

Granted, there are a few things that actually could shake out better.

Most obviously, Cory Schneider might get his game back together. Despite two consecutive seasons you could probably describe as “backup-level,” his career save percentage remains strong at .920. Maybe this is the “new reality” for the 32-year-old netminder, but there’s also the chance that he might get his game back together. Goalies are tough to predict.

Regardless, the Devils must continue to wade through the Metropolitan Division, which has produced the past three Stanley Cup winners. Alongside those Capitals and Penguins, it’s likely that the Blue Jackets, Flyers, and Hurricanes will be formidable in 2018-19. If New Jersey takes a step back, at least it wouldn’t be after signing risky free agents. They’d probably generally be better off waiting for opportunities to strike, as they’ve done in the past.

(Speaking of leveraging opportunities, perhaps Marcus Johansson will enjoy better health luck next season? His concussion issues ranked as one of the things that didn’t break well for the Devils during what was otherwise a remarkable season.)

No NHL team really gets everything right, and a fair amount of luck is involved in building a winner, but smart franchises try to pile up as many smart moves as possible. Shero’s getting a lot of the big ones right, yet this summer, it seems like he’s making some solid, smaller calls.

Then again, maybe he’s just biding his time for another surprise?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Ilya Kovalchuk confident he’s bringing ‘high level’ of play to Kings

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“I’m a young 35.” That’s how Ilya Kovalchuk described himself to reporters during a conference call over the weekend.

If you follow the Russian forward on Instagram, you’ll see that while he’s on the back nine of his hockey playing days he’s doing his best ensure he’s truly a young 35.

Готовь сани летом💪🏻👍🏻🔝… Nice workout with @primal_joe 🔥👌

A post shared by Ilya Kovalchuk (@ilyakovalchukofficial) on

“You just have to train a little more the older you are,” he said.

There are a lot of miles on Kovalchuk’s 35-year-old body. He has over 1,000 professional games played between the NHL and KHL, including 137 games the last two seasons between SKA St. Petersburg and international duty with Russia. Last month, he agreed to a three-year, $18.75 million contract with the Los Angeles Kings — a team with a lot of experience and age, including 10 players who are at least 30 years old.

That’s not a problem in the eyes of the Kings, who lost out in pursuit of him eight years ago and are happy to bring him in to help with their offensive needs.

“He’s very explosive,” Kings president Luc Robitaille told NHL Network last month. “We watched him enough last year and we feel he can [score] in this league. The way our guys [play] — whether it’s [Jeff Carter] or it’s [Anze Kopitar] — they can hold the puck for him. He’s a great fit.”

The Kings have been desperate for scoring having averaged 2.68 goals per game over the last three seasons, good for eighth-worst in the NHL on that span. Kovalchuk netted 30 goals in each of his final two KHL seasons and his 63 points in 2017-18 equates to approximately 72 points over an 82-game season, per Rob Vollman’s latest translation factors. But while there are exceptions to the rule, production from forwards usually nosedives as they get up in their 30s. The supporting cast in LA will play a big part in how much this contract pays off.

“When I was making my decision, it was all about hockey because I have three or four years left in my tank where I can really play at a high level,” Kovalchuk said. “L.A. has a great group of guys. Like I said, great goaltending, great defense, and they have one of the best centers in the league. I never had a chance to play with those kinds of guys, so it’s really exciting for me. It’s great.”

An exceptional talent over his career, you don’t expect Kovalchuk’s production to disappear as soon as he puts on a Kings jersey this season. But it will be interesting to watch, especially on a team that’s been so desperate for scoring.

“I can’t see the future. I will do my best,” he said. “The last few years I was still in the same caliber like I was, so I feel comfortable. Especially when you play with the guys like Kopitar, [Drew] Doughty, Carter, [Dustin] Brown — those guys, they make it even easier to get the points and the goals. We just need to work really hard and be a good team. It doesn’t matter really who’s going to score – we just need to get to our goals.”

Kovalchuk “retired” from the Devils following the 2013 lockout-shortened season but said he followed the league during his time back home in Russia. He sees how the game has changed over the last five years and he’s eager to prove he can be a productive NHL player again.

“It’s a great league,” he said. “All the best players are playing here, and it’s another challenge for me to come back and be who I am and play at the level of where I can play.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

PHT Morning Skate: Panarin talks not progressing; Biron on Emery

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Monday’s meeting between Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen and the indecisive Artemi Panarin did not result in a whole heck of a lot. (Sportsnet)

• With so many questions surrounding the Montreal Canadiens’ roster for this upcoming season, is it possible that Xavier Ouellet can crack the team’s top-six? (The Hockey Writers)

• We’re still waiting on the trade of the summer (Erik Karlsson), and so while we wait, DownGoesBrown (Sean McIndoe) looks at six times a team has traded a star and won. (Sportsnet)

• Former Buffalo Sabres goalie Martin Biron looks back at a fierce game between his Sabres and the Ottawa Senators back in 2007, a game that included a fight between himself and Ray Emery. (The Canadian Press)

• The potential owners of the NHL’s 32nd team in Seattle are planning quite the practice facility for them if/when the league expands to the state of Washington. (KIRO 7)

• Can the Winnipeg Jets and defenseman Jacob Trouba get a deal done prior to their July 20 arbitration meeting? (Winnipeg Sun)

• Having failed to make a significant impact so far this summer, including not getting in on the John Tavares sweepstakes, it’s time for Don Sweeney to finally make his move. (Murphy’s Hockey Law)

• How is Peter Chiarelli faring this summer? Is he doing what needs to be done to return the Edmonton Oilers to the playoffs? (Edmonton Journal)

• Is there a more polarizing figure with the Toronto Maple Leafs right now than defenseman Jake Gardiner? Trade him! No, don’t do that! Seriously though, don’t trade him. (Pension Plan Puppets)

• It turns out that Joe Pavelski is a pretty darn good golfer. (San Jose Sharks)

• Vancouver Canucks head coach Travis Green isn’t setting the bar that high for his club next season. (The Canuck Way)

Tristan Jarry seems like the perfect offer-sheet candidate, so why aren’t NHL teams knocking on that door? (PGH Hockey)

• Despite the class-action lawsuit being thrown out in a Minnesota courtroom last week, both players and lawyers have no option but to forge ahead in their battle for concussion transparency. (The Hockey News)

• A tale about how voting for this year’s MVP award led to a fight on Twitter. (CJR)

• For your hockey-hit viewing pleasure, a look back at all of Dustin Byfuglien‘s best hits from last season courtesy of Sportsnet.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck