Anniversary of Penguins trading Jagr to Capitals recalls peak of Jagr-blaming

Anniversary of Penguins trading Jagr to Capitals recalls peak of Jagr-blaming
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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.

Thin criticisms

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 phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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    Mitch Marner extends Maple Leafs-record points streak to 21 games

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    USA Today
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    TORONTO — Mitch Marner extended his franchise-record points streak to 21 games with a second-period goal and the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Los Angeles Kings 5-0 on Thursday night.

    Marner gave Toronto a 4-0 lead with his 11th goal of the season, scoring on a slap shot after a Los Angeles turnover inside its blue line.

    Marner became the 10th player in the past 35 years to string together a streak of 21 or more games. He has 10 goals and 16 assists during the run.

    Auston Matthews, Pierre Engvall, David Kampf and William Nylander also scored for Toronto. Ilya Samsonov made 29 saves for his first shutout with the Maple Leafs and the seventh of his career.

    Toronto has won seven of eight to improve to 17-5-6.

    Los Angeles dropped to 14-11-4 with its seventh loss in 10 games. Kings goalie Jonathan Quick made 36 saves.

    Penguins’ Kris Letang returns to practice 10 days after stroke

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    PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang returned to practice with his teammates just 10 days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

    The 35-year-old Letang remains out indefinitely, with the club describing him as “day to day.”

    Letang said he felt “pretty good” after being greeted by stick taps from his teammates when he skated onto the ice at the team’s practice facility. Still, the married father of two called the experience “scary,” particularly for his family.

    “My kids, they don’t care if I’m a hockey player or not,” he said. “They care about having a dad. Same with my wife. She could care less about hockey. She knows there’s so much more. After hockey, there’s a long time and you want to be able to enjoy those moments with your family, with your kids.”

    Letang missed more than two months in 2014 after his first stroke, which was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. The condition also led to the second stroke, which Letang suffered on Nov. 28 after dealing with a series of debilitating headaches.

    This time, the symptoms have resolved themselves much more quickly, according to team physician Dr. Dharmesh Vyas, who described this stroke as “smaller” than the one Letang endured in 2014.

    Letang began skating on his own just two days after the diagnosis and was cleared to return to practice on Thursday though both Letang and Vyas stressed they are in no rush for him to play in games.

    “We don’t think this is accelerated in any way,” Vyas said. “We are taking all the right precautions to make sure that it is safe to go out and play and when that time comes we’ll let him go back to playing his sport.”

    Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said it was a “relief” to see Letang back at work.

    “It’s a great visual that he’s making progress,” Sullivan said. “Our medical team that has monitored him extremely closely feels comfortable with some of the progress that he’s making and the steps he’s taken. Everyone was excited for him to join the group.”

    Letang signed a six-year contract extension over the summer that will carry him into his 40s if he decides to play that long. Vyas said the data around strokes is “evolving” though it is unclear if Letang is now more susceptible to having additional strokes now that he’s had a second one.

    The six-time All-Star is cautious but optimistic.

    “We’ve been through this,” Letang said. “Me and Dharmesh have a clear understanding that we’re going to take all the time we need and make sure the research is possible and it’s no danger for me to keep going.”

    The Penguins are 8-1-1 over their last 10 games and have won three straight heading into a home-and-home series with the Sabres. They’re also eager to have Letang’s familiar No. 58 back in the lineup, but only when he’s ready.

    “He’s been here for a long time and his experience and everything that he brings on and off the ice, the way he competes (is important),” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “But I think in the (locker) room, (he has) poise and (he’s) somebody who’s been around a long time and whose experience you feel when he’s around.”

    Thompson nets 4 in 1st, 5 overall, as Buffalo tops Columbus

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    COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tage Thompson matched an NHL record by scoring four times in the first period and finished with five goals and an assist as the Buffalo Sabres won their third straight road game, 9-4 over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.

    Thompson is the second U.S.-born player to score five goals in a game. He is the fourth player in NHL history to record four goals in the first period of a regular-season game, joining Peter Bondra (1994), Grant Mulvey (1982) and Joe Malone (1921). He is also the fourth active player to score five goals in a game, joining Timo Meier (Jan. 17, 2022), Mika Zibanejad (March 5, 2020) and Patrik Laine (Nov. 24, 2018).

    “It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” Thompson said. “You’ve spent a lot of years working to get to this point and to be rewarded for it is a pretty good feeling and it just leaves you hungrier.”

    Thompson’s outburst helped Buffalo score six times in the first 16:40.

    “That was an amazing performance by Tage, and really, the whole group set the table,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I thought the energy, the collective effort, the focus to start was really good and enabled that to happen.”

    Alex Tuch had a goal and three assists, Dylan Cozens added a power-play goal and two assists and Rasmus Dahlin finished with a goal and two assists. Peyton Krebs also scored. Jeff Skinner picked up four assists and Jacob Bryson had two. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 20 shots.

    Patrik Laine and Gustav Nyquist each scored twice for Columbus.

    Joonas Korpisalo stopped two shots before being pulled in the first in favor of Elvis Merzlikins, who stopped 15 shots through the second period. Korpisalo returned in the third and finished with six saves.

    Columbus has lost six straight home games and five of its last six overall.

    “We didn’t have an answer for that one line,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “Tage Thompson just tore us up tonight.”

    Buffalo dominated from the puck drop, scoring four goals on its first six shots.

    Cozens put the Sabres on the board at 3:21 of the first, 53 seconds into a Blue Jackets penalty, and Thompson made it 2-0 just 2:09 later. Dahlin scored Buffalo’s third goal at 7:28 of the first, driving Korpisalo from the net in favor of Merzlikins, who gave up Buffalo goal No. 4 to Thompson 32 seconds later.

    Thompson’s third career hat trick and second of the season came on a power-play goal at 12:22 of the first. He followed with his fourth goal, also on the power play, at 16:40.

    Columbus scored two goals in just over a minute, with Laine at 10:49 and Nyquist at 12:04, before Buffalo reeled off three straight in just over three minutes to end the period, including Thompson’s fifth, and goals by Krebs and Tuch.

    Laine and Nyquist scored in the third period for Columbus.

    STREAKING

    Cozens has 12 points in his last five games and is riding a career-best, five-game point streak. Thompson has eight goals and five assists in his last five games and 10 multi-point games. Dahlin has a five-game point and assist streak, and Gaudreau stretched his points streak to six games.

    NOTES: The Sabres joined the Kraken as the second team this season to score nine goals in a game. … Thompson is the second player in Buffalo history to have five goals in a game, joining Dave Andreychuk, who had five goals and an assist on Feb. 6, 1986.

    UP NEXT

    Buffalo: Hosts Pittsburgh on Friday.

    Columbus: Hosts Calgary on Friday.

    Ovechkin, Strome lead Capitals past struggling Flyers 4-1

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    PHILADELPHIA — Alex Ovechkin scored two empty-net goals, Dylan Strome had a goal and an assist and the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Wednesday night.

    T.J. Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who finished 3-3 on a six-game trip. Charlie Lindgren made 29 saves.

    Kevin Hayes scored for Philadelphia, which has lost 13 of 15 games. Carter Hart made 23 stops.

    Strome broke a 1-all tie with 10:41 remaining when he deflected John Carlson‘s shot from long range past Hart.

    Hayes had a golden opportunity to tie it on a Philadelphia power play, but Lindgren made a great right pad save on a try from close range with 8:20 remaining.

    Ovechkin iced it, scoring into an empty net with 1:35 left and adding another empty-netter with 8.2 seconds left for his 15th of the season. Ovechkin has 795 career goals, good for third all-time. He is six goals away from tying Gordie Howe for second place. Wayne Gretzky, with 894 goals, tops the list.

    Hayes scored his ninth goal of the season for his team-leading 28th point with 4:14 left in the first period to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Hayes rushed to the bench after breaking his stick on a slap shot attempt, and scored on a wrist shot from the high slot with his new stick.

    The Flyers had a power-play goal for the third straight game and have four overall in that stretch. Philadelphia, which began play ranked 30th in the NHL in scoring on the man advantage, now has converted 16.7% (14 of 84) of its chances.

    Oshie tied it 3:51 into the second on the Capitals’ fourth power play as the Flyers continued to take sloppy penalties. This time, James van Riemsdyk committed Philadelphia’s third tripping minor of the game. Oshie made them pay with his fifth goal of the season when he finished a nifty passing sequence with Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov with a perfectly placed one-timer over Hart’s left shoulder.

    NOTES: Van Riemsdyk returned after missing the last 20 games due to a broken right index finger. . Flyers forward Tanner Laczynski was placed on injured reserve after departing midway through the third period of Monday’s 5-3 win over Colorado with what looked like an injury to his left leg. . Washington was without several injured players, including starting goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body). Kuemper was with the team, but missed his second in a row. . Carlson had two assists. . Philadelphia’s Cam Atkinson, out all season with an upper body injury, has been practicing and is close to returning.

    UP NEXT

    Capitals: Host Seattle on Friday night.

    Flyers: Open four-game trip at Vegas on Friday night.