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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.

Goaltending remains biggest question for much-improved Blues

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Sometimes it feels like the St. Louis Blues have faced questions in net for about as long as water’s been wet.

In signing Jake Allen to a four-year, $17.4 million contract a little more than two years ago, the Blues hoped that they might finally have a true No. 1 goalie after bouncing around from Jaroslav Halak to Ryan Miller to Brian Elliott. They even gave Martin Brodeur a brief shot during the twilight games of his career.

(No, you weren’t hallucinating. Brodeur really did play for the Blues.)

Instead, Allen’s been a liability, to the point that he briefly more-or-less lost the 2017-18 starting job to Carter Hutton.

Interestingly, both of the Blues goalies cross their fingers for a rebound next season. The transition from Hutton to Chad Johnson is disastrous on paper if you only judge the netminders by their 2017-18 numbers, yet the bigger picture argues that Johnson can be one of the more reliable backups. Despite a horrendous .891 save percentage from last season, Johnson still has a career average save percentage of .910.

You can’t ask for much better than that from your No. 2, but the Blues still missed the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs even after Hutton played like a great starter for chunks of the past season. Simply put, the Blues need more from Allen.

Let’s consider some of the factors that might impact Allen.

  • To some extent, the 27-year-old (who turns 28 on Aug. 7) is who he is. Allen already has 219 regular-season and 22 playoff games under his belt. His career .913 save percentage is pretty mediocre, thus there’s a fear that the Blues will need to overcome Allen on more than a few occasions.
  • That said, he did generate a .920 save percentage over 47 games in 2015-16, and strong work during the 2016-17 postseason argues that Allen has a higher ceiling than many might assume.
  • No doubt, Allen’s 2017-18 was abysmal, as he went 27-25-3 with a backup-caliber .906 save percentage.

It’s frequently wise to dig a little deeper to try to figure out why a goalie might struggle. In Allen’s case last season, it came down to special teams situations. While he boasted a virtually identical even-strength save percentage in 2017-18 (.919) compared to 2016-17 (.918), his shorthanded save percentage plummeted from a career-high .901 to a career-low .834.

There’s a real worry with some goalies who simply can’t cut it in PK situations, whether that comes down to questionable lateral movement, struggles to see around screens, or any number of explanations. Even after considering those long-term concerns, it’s comforting to realize that last season might just be an aberration.

  • The Blues aren’t that far behind powers like the Maple Leafs when it comes to improving during the off-season. One of the delights of their bold moves to try to contend is that they landed a near-Selke-level two-way player in Ryan O'Reilly.
  • Some good and bad news is that the Blues generally carried on the tradition of playing strong defense and hogging the puck last season. At even-strength, they allowed the fifth-fewest “high-danger” chances, according to Natural Stat Trick.

The bright side is that the structure could very well give Allen a chance to enjoy a rejuvenation. The less optimistic take is that Allen has struggled at times even with a sturdy team in front of him.

  • Such digging doesn’t immediately dismiss Allen’s shorthanded struggles. Apparently the Blues allowed the fifth-fewest high-danger chances on the penalty kill, also according to Natural Stat Trick. It’s up to Allen more than anyone else to turn around those bad PK numbers, or at least it appears that way on paper.

***

Blues GM Doug Armstrong made quite a few moves that lead you to believe that St. Louis is swinging for the fences heading into 2018-19. If a letdown costs him his job, at least he’d be going out with a bang by making some attractive tweaks.

As wise as Armstrong often appears, so far, the organization making Allen “the guy” in net has really backfired.

Ultimately, his job and the Blues’ fate probably lands on Allen’s shoulders. Improvement seems plausible, yet we’ll need to wait and see if he’ll improve enough to allow the Blues to take advantage of all the weapons they added this summer.

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.

Immediate jump unlikely to be best for Kotkaniemi, Habs

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The Montreal Canadiens shouldn’t ask “can Jesperi Kotkaniemi jump straight from the 2018 NHL Draft to the main roster?” Instead, they’re better off wondering if he should.

Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin said that the 18-year-old will get a chance to impress in training camp after performing well at development camp, according to NHL.com’s Sean Farrell.

“He got better every day, so we’re going in with an open mind,” Bergevin said. “I don’t know, but just the fact that he’s signed and he’s coming to camp and he’s closer to the NHL. Where he’s going to be Oct. 1, I can’t tell you, but we see a lot of potential and growth in this young man.”

That’s fair, and the Canadiens would be justified in giving the third pick of the 2018 NHL Draft the nine-game audition before sending him to Finland or the AHL instead of burning the first year of Kotkaniemi’s entry-level contract.

Cautionary tale

But, big picture, this is probably one of those situations where both sides would be better off if Kotkaniemi dips his toes in the water rather than diving right in. If Montreal needs a quick example of a player whose rookie deal hasn’t been used in an optimal way, they might want to consider Jesse Puljujärvi, who went fourth overall in 2016.

Puljujärvi only played in 28 games in 2016-17, making a minimal impact while pushing himself that much closer to ending his rookie deal. Things didn’t get that much better last season, as he only generated 20 points in 65 games. A breakthrough is quite possible in 2018-19, but the downside would be that the Oilers would then need to give him a raise, and would only really enjoy one high-value season from his entry-level contracts.

That’s the sort of poor asset management Montreal should be concerned about, especially if they’re being realistic about their chances next season.

Tension in the air

Now, it’s plausible – maybe probable – that things could go a little better in 2018-19. For the most obvious example, the Habs could conceivably be viable if Carey Price returns to elite form (and good health).

In all honesty, the Lightning and Maple Leafs seem slated to be light years ahead of Montreal. The Panthers and especially the Bruins head into the season with higher hopes, too. The Habs run the risk of falling short of the postseason even if they improve considerably, so why not just push Kotkaniemi’s contract back a year instead of possibly wasting it?

The Finnish forward only turned 18 on July 6, so you’d expect him to be a bit less polished compared to an older prospect like, say, Brady Tkachuk. The worst-case scenario might be if Kotkaniemi plays well enough to hit double digits in games played, yet generally struggles and ends up stunting his growth while wasting a year of that ELC.

It might not be the healthiest environment for Kotkaniemi to debut, either.

Bergevin and head coach Claude Julien must be at least a touch concerned about job security, and the atmosphere has a chance to be pretty toxic. Critics blast Julien for how he handles young players at the best of times, but how ugly might the scene be if fans are calling for Bergevin and Julien to be replaced?

Montreal seems pretty locked-in to its forward group this season, too, and that’s possibly accurate even if they actually pull the trigger on a Max Pacioretty trade. The return could be pretty modest if Kotkaniemi’s is merely a minor upgrade over a replacement-level player.

***

The Habs already made a divisive choice in selecting Kotkaniemi after lucking into the third pick in 2018. Many believe that Montreal aimed at need first and foremost, with the expectation being that Kotkaniemi will develop into the first-line center, a piece that’s eluded Montreal for ages. The pressure’s eventually going to be pretty fierce for the prospect to deliver, so the Canadiens would be wise to wait until he’s truly ready.

And, again, the decision need not be based on altruism alone. Instead, by doing what’s most likely best for Kotkaniemi, the Canadiens stand a better chance to take advantage of his cheap contract when they’d ideally be better prepared to contend.

There are worse problems to have, yet Montreal really needs to start getting these decisions right if they want to turn things around.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Jagr still holds NHL hope?; Islanders turning the page

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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.

• Jaromir Jagr hasn’t given up on the NHL, but he’s in no rush to return either. (Sportsnet)

• The New York Islanders are looking to turn the page after the departure of captain John Tavares. (NHL.com)

Artemi Panarin has given the Columbus Blue Jackets a contract deadline. (The Athletic)

• Would Tyler Seguin want to play with the Montreal Canadiens? (Montreal Gazette)

• Ranking each NHL team based on their locked-in, young core. (ESPN)

• With the thrill of the 2018 NHL Draft already worn off, we might as well take a look ahead to the 2019 rendition and all that it has to offer. (Last Word on Hockey)

• From wives’ room fights to brotherly competition, St. Louis molded Brady Tkachuk. (The Sporting News)

• Do the Vancouver Canucks have an asset on defense that they can work into a trade that would benefit the club? (The Province)

• If you don’t want to read and would rather take two minutes to watch a video, here’s some possible reasons why a trade for Erik Karlsson hasn’t happened yet, here’s your chance. (Sportsnet)

• Where does the line of Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, and Viktor Arvidsson — the JoFA line — fit in the pantheon of the league’s top lines? (Pred Lines)

• You want offseason grades for all 31 NHL teams? Here you go. (The Athletic)

• And here’s a list of the best player to ever wear each number in the NHL. (Puck Prose)

• The Class of Canada: Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Winnipeg Jets. (The Hockey Writers)

• Help is on the way for the Chicago Blackhawks aging defense. (Chicago Mag)

Mike Hoffman‘s fiancée files for disclosure of information in harassment allegations. (Ottawa Citizen)


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

Vegas Golden Knights, U.S. Army agree to end trademark dispute

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The Vegas Golden Knights and the U.S. Army have called an end to their trademark battle regarding the usage of the ‘Golden Knights’ mark and name.

Owner Bill Foley announced on Thursday that the two sides have entered into a trademark coexistence agreement where the U.S. Army will continue using the ‘Golden Knights’ marks and names with its parachute exhibition team. The Golden Knights will continue to use ‘Vegas Golden Knights’ and ‘Golden Knights’ in regards to the hockey team.

“We are pleased that we have agreed to coexist regarding the use of the ‘Golden Knights’ mark and name,” said Foley in a statement. “Our discussions with the Army were collaborative and productive throughout this entire process. We are appreciative of their efforts and commitment to reaching an amicable resolution.”

The U.S. Army filed a notice of opposition in January against against Black Knight Sports and Entertainment over the use of the name ‘Golden Knights.’ Foley is a graduate of West Point and originally wanted to name the team the Black Knights (after the Army sports teams) but decided against it.

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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.