For those who remember those days, here’s another opportunity to feel old. Sunday (July 11, 2021) marks the 20-year anniversary of the enormous (and ultimately enormously disappointing) trade that sent Jaromir Jagr from the Penguins to the Capitals.
In the short term, it didn’t work out particularly well for the Penguins, Capitals, Jagr, or really anyone involved. (Except, you might say, Jagr’s accountants and maybe those gambling against him?)
But in the big picture, things panned out OK. Shortly after trading Jagr themselves, the Capitals lucked into winning the Alex Ovechkin draft lottery. Eventually, they went from the outhouse to the penthouse, ultimately winning their first Stanley Cup. The Penguins also eventually went from valleys to peaks, aided by more than a little luck of their own in landing Sidney Crosby.
So, all water under the bridge right? Well, consider this quote from Tarik El-Bashir’s retrospective on the Capitals’ Jagr trade at The Athletic (sub required).
“I have tried to forget the years where he killed us when he was in Pittsburgh and he killed us when he was in Washington,” a former Caps staffer texted this week when asked for his recollection of the Jagr years.
That’s a money quote, no doubt. Yet, is it really fair?
Even with 20 years past and better times for just about everyone involved, it still seems like Jagr absorbed an inordinate amount of the blame for wider Capitals (and, really, Penguins) failures. But it’s difficult to tell if reality really matches those perceptions.
Jagr was productive with Capitals, but expectations were set too high
Even Jagr’s critics would struggle to blame him — instead of the Capitals — for setting expectations too high. He wasn’t the one revving up the hype machine.
While Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said he wasn’t going to “overbuild expectations,” he pretty much did. There was that Jagr photo in front of the White House. A big contract extension, plus some Jagr-friendly moves like bringing in Robert Lang.
(According to El-Bashir’s great piece, it’s mentioned that after seeing Capitals fans pile in an airport after Jagr was traded, Leonsis said to the Washington Post: ““If you think this is a nice turnout, wait ’til we win one (Cup).”)
Instead of competing for a Stanley Cup, the Capitals didn’t win a playoff round with Jagr around. Again, though, you start to bend the limits of logic by placing too much blame on Jagr alone.
Consider that, from 2001-02 to 2003-04, Jagr ranked fifth in NHL scoring with 230 points in 221 games.
Specifically with the Capitals, Jagr scored 201 points in 190 games. Even if you don’t account for Jagr being traded to the Rangers during the 2003-04 season, he still easily topped all Capitals scorers. Sergei Gonchar ranked second in Capitals point producers from 2001-02 to 2003-04 with 175 points in 214 games.
While Lang is mentioned a bit off-handedly in El-Bashir’s story, he was pretty prolific with Washington. The also-semi-mulleted Czech scorer collected 143 points in 145 games. That marks the fourth-best total of the Jagr era, even if Lang was only a part of a portion of it.
Jagr did his part with seven points in six playoff games, the most of any Capitals player.
It’s easy to compare Jagr’s explosive peak with the Penguins, and then grumble about his dip with the Capitals. But Jagr surged to 121 points in 2000-01 with more than a little help from Mario Lemieux’s unforgettable comeback. Expecting that kind of production to continue was pretty bold, especially as Jagr was exiting his absolute physical peak at age 29.
In talking about winning a Stanley Cup by trading for Jagr, Capitals owner Ted Leonsis paralleled Sabres owner Terry Pegula hyping up the Taylor Hall trade. Neither situation worked out, but was it any fairer to blame Jagr than it would be to boil down Buffalo’s blunders to Taylor Hall?
Consider some of the conjecture about Jagr.
This strange anecdote about Jagr seemingly big-timing (an unnamed) rooke at an area mall feels a degree of Kevin Bacon away from claiming that Phil Kessel was wolfing down hot dogs all the time in Toronto. Here’s that bit, via El-Bashir:
A former player recalled spotting Jagr one afternoon at an empty Annapolis mall and Jagr didn’t even seem to recognize his younger, less established teammate, giving him a, “Like, who is this guy?” look as they made eye contact without stopping, the player said recently.
Sorry, but is there room to empathize with Jagr there? Have you ever run into a co-worker outside of work and desperately grasped at their name? Seems like a strange grudge to maintain, especially anonymously.
When you ponder some of the rumblings about Jagr’s attitude with the Capitals, they appear mostly to be the sort of beefs that only really matter if you aren’t winning. Supposedly big-timing a rookie? Michael Jordan could be notoriously cruel to teammates, often young ones. Because the Bulls won, that cruelty is painted as some sort of artistic genius.
Again, the difference boils down to winning. The Capitals didn’t win enough after trading for Jagr, so the details get filled in conveniently in retrospect.
Sometimes a team just isn’t that good
So, people bring up moodiness, and sometimes rumors about gambling debts. Jagr also didn’t give a young Capitals teammate a big bearhug at a mall.
But was Jagr’s gravest sin not propping up a flawed Capitals roster? Some evidence points that way.
Consider George McPhee’s 2014 comments to Mike Vogel, via the Washington Post:
“I said at the time, ‘This is the right player at the right time for us.’ But I wasn’t sure that it was the right player at the right time for us. We were building our organization with bricks and when we did that, we suddenly went to siding or a different material. We got on a different bus. It’s always about team construction and we weren’t really constructed the right way to absorb him. And it wasn’t a great period in his life. He had lots of things going on. He wasn’t in a good place …”
Perhaps the story of the Jagr trade not working out enough for the Capitals is really the story of homeowners not wanting to take the blame for messing up their expensive renovations?
It mostly worked out in the end
Look, none of this will force Capitals fans to love Jaromir Jagr. And even Jagr acknowledged that it didn’t work out — at least not immediately, or directly.
But as Jagr noted, Leonsis and the Capitals got their Stanley Cup. (Even the Penguins eventually bounced back in a big way.)
Hopefully, hockey fans and media get wiser (and fairer) when it comes to the next Jagr – Capitals trade parallel. Often, it’s not the biggest star who dooms a doomed team. Sometimes the numbers making it almost impossible to argue as much.
(Now allow me to grimace at a future where Jack Eichel gets blamed for everything if the Sabres trade him.)
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.