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).
Let’s pretend you — yes, you! — are one of the 30 general managers running an NHL team outside of Ottawa.
Out of that group of general managers, you are in charge of one of the teams that has the necessary salary cap space to acquire superstar defenseman Erik Karlsson, not only one of the best players in the NHL, but the most impactful and dominant defenseman of the modern era. Also one of the most impactful and dominant defenseman to probably ever play in the league.
You are also a team that Karlsson would have an interest in signing a long-term contract extension with, potentially keeping him on your roster for the next seven or eight years. That is a rare position to be in, and in the right situation it could help build a potential championship team. Players like Karlsson do not come around very often, and it is even rarer that you get the opportunity to actually acquire one in a trade.
When that opportunity presents itself there is one thing you should not do: Let a prospect get in the way of completing that deal.
I mention this because it has been reported that the Dallas Stars, one of the apparent front-runners to acquire Karlsson in a trade, are not willing to part with defenseman Miro Heiskanen in a potential deal.
Stars not willing to include Heiskanen in a trade is shaping up as potential deal breaker. Dorion apparently sticking to his guns.
This comes after it was reported that Vegas’ unwillingness to part with 2017 first-round pick Cody Glass was one of the hold ups.
It is almost certain that every other team looking to acquire Karlsson has a prospect of their own that they are not willing to part with, essentially making them “untouchable” in trade talks. Every team has that one prospect they have high hopes and expectations for. A lot of times we — media, fans, teams — tend to overvalue that prospect.
Given the nature of a salary capped league it is understandable why prospects are so valuable. When they first hit the NHL they make peanuts compared to more established players and can provide immense value based on that — if they are as good as you hope. You do not want to trade them for just any random player. In Dallas’ case, a player like Heiskanen has immense potential and could be a foundational player for a long time if he develops as expected..
But do you know who would definitely be a foundational piece for a long time?
The reality is that a lot of times that prospect you are clutching on to and refusing to part with does not always turn out and develop the way you want them to. Karlsson is also not just any random player. He is a superstar. He is, when he is at his best and fully healthy, arguably one of the three best players in the NHL right now behind only Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid.
Maybe it is overstating things a bit, but there is probably a 95 percent chance that a team is still going to get more value out of Karlsson over the next seven years — even at this point in his career when he will be playing in his age 28 through 35 seasons — than any prospect in the league. Even if that prospect becomes the player you think and hope they can become. That is just how good Karlsson is. Especially if you put him on a team next to John Klingberg. Or next to Victor Hedman. Or next to anybody, really.
This is not to say one of these teams should just give up their entire farm system or trade 20 pieces to get him. But if you are Jim Nill in Dallas and Pierre Dorion insists on Heiskanen being the centerpiece of a potential trade, is it smart to entirely leave him off the table and risk losing the opportunity to land a true superstar? If you are George McPhee and have a chance to give your expansion team its first superstar, a player you could still build around (especially with all of that salary cap space and the number of future draft picks you still have), how can you let Cody Glass get in the way of that? You do not trade prospects like that for some second-line center rental at the trade deadline. But when you have a chance to get an Erik Karlsson? You have to swing for the fences when you get that opportunity.
John Tortorella clearly can’t stand the Pittsburgh Penguins, and in that glorious feud, the gawking hockey audience counts as the real winners.
Perhaps the juiciest chapter in that hate-affair boiled over last night, as Tortorella and the Columbus Blue Jackets were not happy about now-former CBJ defenseman Jack Johnson‘s comments about joining the Penguins. Torts & Co. were downright livid over Penguins GM Jim Rutherford piling on, too.
It’s all delicious, especially for those who want hockey banter to be about more than just canned quotes and cliches.
Penguins light the fire
In most cases, you need to read between the lines a bit with statements in hockey (see: how Lou Lamoriello subtly jabbedJohn Tavares about “individual success” in a press release). For instance, upon reflecting on his decision to join the Penguins, Jack Johnson may have slighted Columbus.
” … I’ve been really wanting to be a part of a winning culture and a place where the expectations to win are as high as they can be and have a chance to win,” Johnson said, via the Penguins website. “I don’t think I could’ve asked for a better opportunity here.”
Johnson’s comments feel run of the mill at first, honestly. It’s mainly if you’re, say, part of a hockey franchise that still hasn’t ever won a playoff series, that you might feel your blood start to boil.
But it was Penguins GM Jim Rutherford’s comments about how Johnson was used late in his time with Columbus that really turned the knife deeper.
“I don’t think he had a bad year,” Rutherford said, via NHL.com’s Wes Crosby. “He was a healthy scratch at the end of last season. I know the reason why.”
Blue Jackets respond, with Torts losing it
Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen provided the (relatively) calm response:
After explaining that the Blue Jackets “bent over backward” to try to help Johnson, including with his ugly, well-publicized financial troubles stemming from his family, Torts provided one of the many gems of the article. It’s efficient, too, as this specific quote blasts Rutherford as well.
” … And for him to backhand slap us like this is utter [expletive], and he should know better,” Tortorella told Portzline.
“No one wishes anything bad to happen to him and his family. We wish him the best. But for him to put it the way he put it today is [expletive]. And to have a general manager question our decision-making from three hours away, he must be a [expletive] magician.”
Tortorella isn’t coy about how Columbus is working hard to raise its profile in the league, which is clearly what these angry responses are about.
Well, that and Torts’ undeniable disdain for the Penguins.
Torts’ message for Rutherford and the Penguins, ultimately, is a more profane version of mind your own business.
“But you get an arrogant couple of guys, an arrogant guy … I don’t want to go to name-calling, cause I know Jimmy. He’s a good man. They’re both good people,” Tortorella said. “But what the [expletive] are they doing? Get on with your business! I hope (Johnson) plays his ass off for ’em, but stay the [expletive] out of our business when you don’t know what’s going on.”
As explosive as Tortorella’s comments are, he does have a point.
Rutherford’s take on there being some sort of seedier motivation for scratching Johnson – again, a defenseman with serious deficits in his game by both traditional and analytical standards – is pretty strange.
It’s also great that Tortorella used the word “arrogant” here, as it ties things together nicely with his history of dust-ups with the Pens.
An abridged history of Tortorella hating the Penguins
Taking a shot at Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin: Back when Tortorella was with the Rangers, Torts slammed both the Penguins for whining and the NHL for allegedly having a double standard in Pittsburgh’s favor. It was glorious, and a good way to remind people that press conferences can be gold because they come during moments of raw emotion:
Whining enough for the whole league: After being asked about a Brandon Dubinsky suspension in November 2015, Tortorella responded, “We’re not going to whine here … Pittsburgh whines enough for the whole league.”
“Quite honestly, I don’t like the team,” Torts said. “And I say that, very…not in a personal way, but it’s a team that we want to beat. I guess maybe I’m defining it’s a little bit of a rivalry. We respect the team. It’s a really good hockey team we’re playing against, but yeah, you gotta have to have a little bit of an edge when you play against them and I think that’s the way we have to play.”
The above list covers many of Torts’ outbursts about the Penguins, but chances are there’ve been even more. Especially behind closed doors.
We should all be thankful that a good number of those comments were made on the record.
As is often the case with Tortorella, his latest comments combine kernels of truth with an almost cartoonish bluntness. For many fans who dislike the Penguins, it’s like he’s expressing their thoughts, with or without the profanity.
Torts himself wondered how Jack Johnson’s former teammates might react to facing him again, so just to note, the Penguins and Blue Jackets first meet in Pittsburgh on Nov. 24. Johnson’s return to Columbus won’t come for a while, however, as the Penguins don’t face the Blue Jackets on the road until Feb. 26.
Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford announced two free agent signings on Sunday afternoon — one that was expected, and one that kind of came out of nowhere.
First, the Penguins made it official and signed defenseman Jack Johnson to a five-year contract that will pay him $16.25 million. News of that potential signing first broke last week and it seemed to be a foregone conclusion that pen was going to be put to paper on that deal.
Along with that news, the Penguins also announced that veteran center Matt Cullen is returning to the team after spending the 2017-18 season as a member of the Minnesota Wild. Cullen was an important depth player on the Penguins’ Stanley Cup winning teams in 2016 and 2017 before leaving as a free agent prior to last season. The Penguins reportedly attempted to re-acquire him via trade throughout the season but were never able to make it work. His contract is a one-year deal worth $650,000.
The addition that is going to get the most attention here is Johnson because that is a pretty significant investment in a player whose career has been … let’s say … polarizing. You either love his combination of size and the skating ability he had earlier in his career that helped make him such a prized prospect entering the league, or you absolutely hate the objective evidence his NHL career has produced.
He is coming off of a brutal season in Columbus that saw him end the year as a healthy scratch. He will also turn 32 years old this season and the Penguins are taking a might big gamble that they can “fix” what has ailed him.
Financially speaking, the $3.25 million salary cap hit might not be badif it was on a shorter-term deal. But a five-year commitment is a lot for a player you’re trying to repair, and it’s certainly debatable as to whether or not there is anything there to salvage when it comes to his play on the ice.
The defense of the signing all revolves around Johnson getting into a better situation (he talked on Sunday about wanting to join a winning environment) and the ability of the Penguins’ coaching staff, led by defense coach Sergei Gonchar, being able to help him the same way they helped improve Justin Schultz and Jamie Oleksiak in previous years (Rutherford said he would always put his money on Gonchar).
The problem is those aren’t exactly perfect parallels to look at.
In the case of Schultz and Oleksiak, the Penguins were dealing with young players in their mid-20s that were stuck in bad situations, they gave up minimal assets to acquire, and were able to help put them into more favorable situations and get a little more production out of them. And in Oleksiak’s case the jury is still very much out on how much he really has improved because it’s still such a small body of work in Pittsburgh.
With Johnson, he is 32 years old, has probably already started to lose a step from where he was when he younger, and has a decade long track record to show just what type of player he is. The results are not encouraging.
Just about every team Johnson has played for has performed worse — significantly worse — from a goals and shots perspective with Johnson on the versus him off of the ice. Observe the difference in shot attempts (CF%) and goal differential (GF%).
That is not an encouraging trend.
Now, one of two things will happen: They will either play Johnson in a top-four role and bump one of Olli Maatta or Justin Schultz down to the third pair, or they will play Johnson in that third-pair role alongside Jamie Oleksiak. Both options present their share of problems. With the former, you’re playing what is probably an inferior player over a better play (is Johnson better than either Maatta or Schultz? I am not sold on that).
With the latter, it just means you committed five years and all of your newfound salary cap space to a third-pairing defenseman when you probably could have gotten the same (or maybe even better) play for less.
It just seems like a big investment to make in a player you’re hoping can improve a decade-long trend of play and that you’re simply hoping for the best on.
The Cullen signing is an interesting one, only because it does not seem immediately clear where he will play or how he will be used.
Cullen, a long-time favorite of Rutherford, was great for the Penguins in a fourth-line role before signing with Minnesota. His departure (along with the free agent departure of Nick Bonino) resulted in the in-season trades to acquire Brassard and Sheahan.
Cullen ended up scoring 11 goals for the Wild this past season.