Commentary

With Jagr gone, the page has been turned in New York

Updated: July 4, 2008, 7:47 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

And so, we bid adieu to No. 68, the five-time NHL scoring champ, the whip-smart contrarian with a surprising sense of humor and a pretty darn good hockey player even now at age 36.

The alarmists in the hockey media -- and there is no shortage of them -- will suggest Jaromir Jagr's decision to turn his back on the NHL and return to Avangard Omsk, the Russian elite league team he played for during the 2004-05 lockout, will signal a flood of NHL talent jumping to the cash-soaked league.

[+] EnlargeJaromir Jagr
Jason Bridge/US PresswireJaromir Jagr's new deal in Russia contains a "no-out" clause, which means he's obligated to play with Omsk for at least two years.

Ha.

If there's something Jagr is not, it's a trendsetter. He marches to his own beat and the beat told him when it became clear the New York Rangers had chosen a different path, his own path would take him to Omsk, not Edmonton or anywhere else in North America.

As anyone who has ever been to Russia in the dead of winter or even spoken to anyone who's ever been there when the sun disappears for days on end could attest, there will no more be a cavalcade of stars heading east than there will be a Stanley Cup parade in Toronto next spring. Unless you lament the absence of Alexander Perezhogin and Alexei Kaigorodov playing third- and fourth-line minutes for an NHL club near you, the eastward exodus is all fantasy, just like recent reports of Evgeni Malkin preparing to head back to Russia for a mountain of cash.

There may be money in Russia (just don't ask where it came from and don't complain if it doesn't get to you in an orderly fashion), but the hockey is hit-and-miss, even with Jagr creating headlines.

Have we seen the end of Jagr outside international competition? Who knows. Sources told ESPN.com on Friday that Jagr has a "no-out" clause, locking him into staying in Russia for the length of the deal -- at least two years with a third possible at Jagr's discretion. If that's the way it shakes down, we have likely seen the last of the big winger and there is a feeling of melancholy at seeing Jagr go.

Statistically, Jagr had one of his worst seasons ever with just 25 goals and 71 points in 2007-08, totals that prevented him from meeting triggers in his contract that would have kept him in New York for at least one more season. Yet, as the playoffs neared, Jagr became a force and was the team's best player down the stretch and through the two rounds of the playoffs.

Even when the Rangers fell behind the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-0 in the second round, we remember Jagr sitting in his dressing room stall at the team's practice facility, speaking passionately about believing in the Rangers' chances of defeating the Penguins and his desire to be part of history.

Even as the Jagr era in New York closed with the Rangers' signing of free-agent forward Markus Naslund on Thursday, there remained a number of interesting possibilities for Jagr. Edmonton was hungry for his experience and talent as part of a revamped Oilers offense. The Penguins, despite signing Miroslav Satan and Ruslan Fedotenko on Thursday, presumably could have found room for the former Pittsburgh star.

But if it wasn't New York, it wasn't going to be anywhere for Jagr. If he stays with Omsk for the full three years, a source told ESPN.com that Jagr could collect $35 million (U.S.) over the life of the deal.

In an interview with Larry Brooks of the New York Post on Thursday, Jagr ended his conversation by saying: "And I also want to say to the people like Mike Milbury, who made their living by criticizing me all the time, that they can kiss my [butt]."

It was vintage Jagr.

The Rangers and their fans saw Jagr at his best. When few gave the Rangers any chance of being close to the postseason coming out of the lockout, Jagr guaranteed a playoff berth. Jagr turned in a virtuoso 123-point performance that saw him finish second to San Jose's Joe Thornton in NHL scoring and Hart Trophy voting.

It was great fun.

But last summer, as the Rangers tried to find the pieces that would propel them from playoff lock to Cup contender, they inadvertently altered the chemistry in their dressing room as it related to Jagr.

By signing Scott Gomez and Chris Drury to long-term deals, they shifted the balance of power and it never was quite right again at Madison Square Garden. This isn't about egos -- Jagr having to share the stage with the two talented and personable centers -- but about dynamics.

Jagr worked in almost perfect harmony with center Michael Nylander the first two years after the lockout. The understated Nylander was a casualty of the Gomez/Drury signings and Jagr never found his rhythm with either center, finishing the season playing mostly with Brandon Dubinsky.

The Rangers were somewhere between Jagr's team and the future, and while they advanced to the second round for the second straight season, they were no match for Pittsburgh and its clearly defined pecking order of Sidney Crosby, Malkin, Marian Hossa and the rest.

With Jagr gone, the page has been turned in New York.

Gomez and Drury will become the faces of the franchise and the rest of the newcomers, Nikolai Zherdev, Dan Fritsche, Wade Redden and Naslund, will fall into line.

Will it work? Zherdev is unpredictable and Naslund over the past few seasons has shown little resemblance to the player he was. But the makings are there.

We suggested at the trade deadline that the Rangers might be further ahead by trading Jagr, bound for unrestricted free agency, in an effort to speed up this evolutionary process. Although the Rangers and their fans will miss Jagr by the time next spring rolls around, they may be a much better team despite his absence.

After all, that's what letting Jagr walk away was all about, right?

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.

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