As Jagr continues to struggle, we ponder his future in New York
PITTSBURGH -- So, here we are, more than halfway through this wacky NHL season, and the New York Rangers continue to wait for what was foretold on paper -- heck, what logic dictated should happen -- to become a reality.
Blessed with a bevy of offensive talent that includes blue-chip free-agent acquisitions Chris Drury and Scott Gomez, three-time Stanley Cup winner Brendan Shanahan, agitator extraordinaire Sean Avery, Martin Straka and five-time NHL scoring champ Jaromir Jagr, the Rangers began the season as many prognosticators' pick to win the Eastern Conference. Some even predicted a Stanley Cup parade next June in Gotham.
But it hasn't turned out that way. Not even close.
After being dumped 4-1 on Monday night by the Pittsburgh Penguins, a game in which they gave up three first-period goals, the Rangers are last in the Atlantic Division, ninth in the East and have dropped of six of their last seven games. Perhaps even more perplexing than the poor record, the Rangers have somehow managed to become the lowest scoring team in the NHL, averaging just 2.37 goals per game.
So, instead of tinkering with the roster come trade deadline time next month, maybe looking to pick up some defensive help or scoring depth up front for the playoffs, the Rangers now must consider something more dramatic, possibly stunning, if they are going to get back in the Stanley Cup game.
And if general manager Glen Sather is considering such a move, that consideration begins and ends with Jagr.
After collecting 84 goals and 219 points in the first two seasons after the lockout, Jagr had just 12 goals and 39 points heading into Monday's game to put him on pace for the lowest goal output of his career.
A lot of Jagr's success the past two seasons was due to the karma created with former linemate Michael Nylander. Both were creative puck-handling specialists, and they fed off each other. Jagr was the Lone Ranger, and Nylander was his Tonto.
When Drury and Gomez were signed to long-term deals, Nylander signed with the Washington Capitals. And while some adjustments were to be expected, no one predicted Jagr would be rendered moot midway through the season. He went 10 games in December without scoring a goal and his third-period goal Monday was his second in seven games.
A source familiar with the team told ESPN.com earlier this season that he thinks one of the problems in getting the new pieces in New York to gel has been that Jagr is no longer "the" guy. When the Rangers signed Drury to a five-year deal and lured Gomez across the river from the New Jersey Devils with a seven-year contract, they became the focal point of the team -- they became the team's future.
Jagr might have had a place in that future, too, and he may still. But, in this case, change is bad.
If it is fair to suggest that the additions to the lineup have not produced success and that entirely missing the playoffs now is a distinct possibility, would it not follow that the route to rediscovering success might well be to subtract from the equation?
If this is true, the economics of the new NHL suggest Jagr, who will be an unrestricted free agent in the summer, is the most logical piece to move. It goes without saying that there would be a market for a player of Jagr's immense talent, even in the face of this surprisingly disappointing season.
A team like the Colorado Avalanche, for instance, desperate to make the playoffs and wracked by injuries to top players Joe Sakic and Ryan Smyth, might be interested. The Avs have been rumored to be looking to move puck-moving defenseman John-Michael Liles, a member of the 2006 U.S. Olympic team.
How about Jagr with the San Jose Sharks, where general manager Doug Wilson isn't afraid of a blockbuster deal and has some assets to move? Or even the Vancouver Canucks, where the Sedin brothers still need someone to play alongside them and some defensive depth could be moved?
Rangers coach Tom Renney did not answer directly when asked how he would assess Jagr's play.
"It's a little difficult for me, because we have a relationship and I know the personality well and the good intentions and all those kinds of things," Renney said. "That doesn't always translate on the ice [with] what he wants, nor I for that matter, but his intentions have been great from Day 1."
Jagr acknowledged that simply looking at the scoring summary every night doesn't tell the tale of a player's level of play or his value to his team. But he also knows that if he is expected to score and doesn't, that is the bottom line.
"It's still about the goals. I understand that," Jagr told ESPN.com Monday. "Sometimes, you play bad and score goals and nobody gives you any [grief]. It works both ways. It's still about the goals. You need to score goals. My dad always said, 'It's all about the goals.'
"It's tough for our team, because we don't play very well lately. We don't win many games. It would be a lot easier for everybody if we would be first in our division, but it's the other way around. Of course, if you're captain, you've got to take the biggest responsibility for that. That's the way it is."
Jagr will turn 36 in February. He has a no-trade clause that will have to be waived if the Rangers consider moving him. He made it clear he is not looking to leave. But if the Rangers ask him to, that will be a different story.
"I love to play for New York; I love to play for this team. But if they come to me and say they don't want me, what are you going to do? Say, 'No, I want to be here'?" Jagr said. "But I would never go there and ask, because I love the organization too much. There's a lot of great people here. Sometimes, you're maybe not going to be that lucky. It's all about the people; the people are great."
As he headed out of the dressing room, Jagr noted that "things can change just like that, you know."
He was referring to the team's fortunes, but he might as well have applied it to his own situation.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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