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.
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.”
“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.
Just not the way anybody expected it to be.
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).