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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.

Mikko Rantanen turning into ‘driving force’ for Avalanche

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One of the goals entering the 2018-19 NHL season for Colorado Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar was to push Mikko Rantanen to become a more consistent, impact player. Through seven games, the young Finnish star is leading the NHL in assists with 11 (eight of which are primary) and his team in points with 13, showing that even after a 29-goal, 84-point performance last season there’s more to come.

“He’s a hard-working guy in the off-season and also during the season. I think he’s just scratching the surface of his potential,” Bednar told Pro Hockey Talk recently. “He’s still a young player, both age-wise and from an experience standpoint in the league. I think that he has another level that he can get to, we’re going to try to push him to that level here this year as a coaching staff and demand more of him. He can still become more consistent. But he’s a real receptive guy. He’s a highly-intelligent, highly-skilled player and he’s got great size and strength, too. Sky’s the limit for Mikko.”

The soon-to-be 22-year-old Rantanen has registered a point in all seven Avalanche games this season, including a four-point night against the New Jersey Devils Thursday that saw him have a hand in all three of Gabriel Landeskog’s goals.

At 6-4, 215 lbs., Rantanen is able to use his size to his advantage to fend off opponents and has shown he can handle the responsibilities of playing on the Avs’ top line. Bednar thought he was the team’s best forward against the Calgary Flames and New York Rangers in the past week, describing him as the “driving force” of the trio with Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon.

Rantanen, the No. 10 overall selection in the 2015 NHL Draft, got his first taste of the NHL during a nine-game stint at the start of the 2015-16 season. With a revolving door of linemates, he averaged only 8:57 of ice time and failed to record a point. He was still going through the adjustment phase of transitioning from the big ice sheets in Europe while playing for TPS, his hometown team, to the smaller ones in North America, which force players into making quicker decisions.

Going down to AHL San Antonio and getting 20 minutes a night helped Rantanen greatly. He would score 24 goals and record 60 points in 52 games for the Rampage, a clear sign he was ready for a second shot at the NHL.

The Rantanen-Landeskog-MacKinnon line was put together during the 2016-17 season and it became apparent that the chemistry between the three would give Bednar a weapon to unleash. Rantanen would pot 20 goals and record 39 points that season and add power play duties to his list of responsibilities.

“I think knowing the league, knowing his opponents, pushing himself to be a difference-maker every night and getting more consistent in year two,” Bednar said. “[He] was healthy to start the season, he got dinged up his first year and it gave him a little bit of a slow start, so he was out of the gates right away playing well.”

The jump in production was a result of his linemates and experience. Rantanen’s off-season training routines haven’t changed much since arriving in North America. He’s always worked on improvement his quickness, but most everything else is pretty standard. The one change he did make was going from a 100 flex on his stick to a 90 as he looked for something whippier.

But while Rantanen, who credits Landeskog and Jarome Iginla as big influences during his rookie year, was finding success during his rookie season, his team wasn’t as the Avalanche failed to make the playoffs for the third straight season and finished dead last in the NHL. 

It was a tough balance between personal success and team failure.

“It’s not easy. Young guy, first full year in the league and we won only 22 games, so it’s really hard, actually,” Rantanen said. “I think it’s probably harder for the older guys because as a young guy everything is new. You go to the new rinks, you play first time wherever you go on the road. Everything is kind of new, so you’re still enjoying it even though it’s not nice to lose because then the team attitude is not great.”

Last season, with a year together under their belts, the Avalanche’s top line took off. MacKinnon, Rantanen and Landeskog finished top three on the team in points, with MacKinnon (39-58—97), who ended up a finalist for the Hart Trophy, and Rantanen (29-55—84) posting career years. Landeskog would finish with the second-most goals (25) and points (62) of his career and the team would grab the final wild card spot in the Western Conference.

“Our line was a big reason, we started pretty much right away,” Rantanen said. “We played the whole season together, so I think the chemistry builds up when you play together so long… I was more ready last year mentally than rookie year because you’ve been one year in the league, so you kind of know what to expect.”

Opponents know what kind of handful Rantanen, Landeskog and MacKinnon will be in trying to stop them on a nightly basis. So far, it’s been an uphill battle for other teams with MacKinnon netting seven goals, Rantanen recording 13 points and Landeskog chipping in five goals and eight points. 

The issue confronting other teams is that all three have dynamic skill sets. Landeskog is strong down low in creating chances; MacKinnon can out-skate anyone and has one of the league’s best shots; and Rantanen is a playmaker who can find himself in the right place at the right time.

As Bednar said, there’s still another level that Rantanen can reach, which bodes well for the Avalanche going forward and serves as a warning for the rest of the NHL.

“He’s so big and he’s got good vision. He sees the ice so well,” said MacKinnon. “He’s a great passer and he creates a lot of room for me. He protects the puck. He’s so good down low, so it takes a lot of heat off me. The way he controls the play. I’m lucky to play with him, for sure.”

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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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.

 

NHL on NBCSN: Stars look to get back to winning ways vs. Wild

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Friday night’s matchup between the Minnesota Wild and the Dallas Stars at 8 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports App by clicking here.

Dallas heads to Minnesota looking to rebound after back-to-back losses to the Ottawa Senators and New Jersey Devils, games that saw them score a combined single goal in six periods of hockey.

That kind of production doesn’t win games and highlights how the Stars can struggle when their top line of Alexander Radulov, Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin aren’t putting pucks in the back of the net. The line has combined for 28 points this season but only Radulov was able to notch an assist (a secondary one at that) in the past two games.

The good news for Dallas is they return home to American Airlines Arena where they are 3-1-0. Now, they need to start playing the same game as they were when they began the season strong out of the gate.

“We have to be five guys in the picture, whether on forecheck, or rush defense, or in the defensive zone,” Stars coach Jim Montgomery told NHL.com. “We’re just not connected. You don’t see the five guys together. That’s what we are missing now. We can’t sustain offense or get the puck out quickly because we are not together.”

[WATCH LIVE – 8 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Finding a way to win on the road will be top of the order for the Wild on Friday.

They’ve gone 0-2-0 in road games so far this season and are facing a Stars team that has been solid at home. That said, Minnesota has found success against the Wild in recent times, with an 11-4-4 record in their past 19 meetings (including a 5-3-2 record in their previous 10 games in Texas).

The Wild aren’t doing themselves any favors early on, allowing 38.2 shots per game. Their savior at the moment has been Devan Dubnyk, who’s been sensational with his .940 save percentage despite seeing nearly 40 shots per game in his five starts.

The Wild have struggled to find the back of the net as well with just 14 goals through five games. Couple that with their porous possession numbers (45.64% as a team), and it’s no wonder Dubnyk has been shelled game after game.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule


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

PHT Morning Skate: McDavid or Matthews?; Goalie concussion concern

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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.

• The best player in the NHL debate rages on. (NHL.com)

Corey Crawford‘s lengthy absence due to a concussion has the NHL worried. (TSN.ca)

• Power play goals are up (as is scoring) in the NHL season. Here’s an analysis as to why. (Sportsnet)

• Your team might have one. Here’s a list of the NHL’s underperforming stars. (ESPN)

• Matt and Ashley Duchene brought out the creativity to announce their pregnancy. (Daily Hive)

• Like arena food? Here are some tasty looking options coming to a rink near you. (Business Wire)

• An excellent story here on the biggest “tells” in hockey. (The Athletic)

• The NHL paid USA Hockey to support the US Women’s National Team. (Russian Machine Never Breaks)

• A story on the wonderful art of fly-by stick replacement in the NHL. (Sports Illustrated)

• The search for Seattle’s AHL affiliate is on. (Sonics Rising)

• Tomas Hyka’s NHL odyssey lands him on the Golden Knights second line. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)

• On Duncan Keith and his unfinished legacy. (The Hockey Writers)

• Ken Holland isn’t looking over his shoulder with Steve Yzerman on the horizon. (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

The Buzzer: Murray shuts out Leafs; Raanta spoils Crawford’s return

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Three Stars

1. Matt Murray, Pittsburgh Penguins. It has been a tough start to the season for Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray. When he has been in the lineup, he has not played well. Then he was sidelined with the third concussion of his career and missed three consecutive games. Then he had to return to the lineup, on the road, against the highest scoring team in the NHL, the Toronto Maple Leafs. How did that return to the lineup go? He stopped all 38 shots he faced and was sensational in the Penguins’ 3-0 win. He looked like the two-time Stanley Cup winning goalie in this game.

2. Gabriel Landeskog, Colorado Avalanche. The Colorado Avalanche and New Jersey Devils were two of the most surprising playoff teams in the NHL a year ago, and were both led by MVP caliber performances from their best players (Nathan MacKinnon and Taylor Hall respectively, with Hall actually winning the award). They faced off in New Jersey on Thursday night and it was the Avalanche coming away with the win, handing the Devils their first loss of the season. MacKinnon and Hall both had big games (Hall had three points; MacKinnon had two) but it was Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog that was the star in this one, recording a hat trick, including two goals in the third period as the Avalanche rallied for the win. His goals in the third period were the game-tying and game-winning goals.

3. Logan Couture, San Jose Sharks. The other hat trick of the night belonged to San Jose Sharks forward Logan Couture in his team’s rout of the Buffalo Sabres. This game was a laugher from the beginning as the Sabres were just completely overmatched against a far superior team. It all started with a Buffalo double-minor in the opening minutes of the game that the Sharks turned into two quick power play goals, including Couture’s first. He added his second goal early in the third period and then completed the hat trick with an empty-net goal. He now has four goals on the season. This was also a big night for the Sharks power play as it scored three goals in the win.

Red Wings remain winless

There are only two winless teams remaining in the NHL — the Florida Panthers and the Detroit Red Wings. The Panthers had Thursday night off. The Red Wings did not. Their season-opening losing streak continued with a 3-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, dropping them to 0-5-2 on the season with what is — by far — a league-worst minus-18 goal differential. No other team in the league has a goal differential worse than minus-10. The Buffalo Sabres and Los Angeles Kings are tied for second-worst at minus-9. Speaking of the Kings…

The Kings look awful

General manager Rob Blake has not been happy his team’s performance so far this season, and they responded on Thursday night by getting completely dominated by the New York Islanders in what was a completely embarrassing 7-2 loss. They did not have Anze Kopitar as he was sidelined due to illness, and it was goalie Jonathan Quick‘s first game back from injury, but there is no excuse for how bad the rest of the team performed. The Kings cut what was a 3-1 deficit to just a single goal early in the third period, but then completely unraveled in the minutes after that by giving up four consecutive goals in eight minutes. There is nothing positive about this team right now.

Highlights of the Night

The highlight of the night was Anthony Duclair‘s goal against the Philadelphia Flyers. This is just ridiculous, one of the many great goals they scored on the night.

The other highlight of the night: Connor McDavid, doing Connor McDavid things. He is completely unstoppable right now, stealing wins for the Oilers every night.

Factoids

Corey Crawford made his return to the Chicago Blackhawks’ lineup on Thursday night and played pretty well in a 4-1 loss (he played better than the final score would indicate, anyway). It was the Blackhawks’ first regulation loss of the season and it came at the hands of Crawford’s former backup, Antti Raanta, who was absolutely outstanding for the Arizona Coyotes. He also loves playing at the United Center.

Speaking of the Coyotes, their four goals on Thursday night were more goals than the scored (three) in the first five games of the season. Combined. They also scored their first even-strength goals of the season in the win.

More Connor McDavid stats.

 

Scores

Pittsburgh Penguins 3, Toronto Maple Leafs 0

Colorado Avalanche 5, New Jersey Devils 3

Columbus Blue Jackets 6, Philadelphia Flyers 3

Tampa Bay Lightning 3, Detroit Red Wings 1

Winnipeg Jets 4, Vancouver Canucks 1

Arizona Coyotes 4, Chicago Blackhawks 1

Edmonton Oilers 3, Boston Bruins 2 (OT)

San Jose Sharks 5, Buffalo Sabres 1

New York Islanders 7, Los Angeles Kings 2

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.