Practice could make Jagr, Lindros perfect

After many strange moves, Glen Sather finally made a good one: pairing Jaromir Jagr with Eric Lindros.

Updated: January 28, 2004, 2:51 PM ET
By E.J. Hradek | ESPN The Magazine

Glen Sather has made several strange moves during his unsuccessful tenure as general manager and coach of the New York Rangers.

Jaromir Jagr
Jaromir Jagr was named first star in his first game at the Garden.
The hiring of inexperienced head coach Bryan Trottier and the on-going decision to pair offensive-minded defensemen Brian Leetch and Tom Poti are two that quickly come to mind.

But Sather -- desperate to end a six-year playoff drought (three years on his watch) -- isn't messing around with the latest millionaire to skate into his locker room. On Monday, Sather placed Jaromir Jagr exactly where he belongs: on the right side of center Eric Lindros. The move resulted in a 5-2 win over the defenseless Panthers at Madison Square Garden,

In Jagr's first game as a Ranger, the now infamous 9-1 drubbing in Ottawa, Sather slotted No. 68 on a line centered by former Penguins teammate Petr Nedved. Sather's initial rationale was simple: the two Czechs had enjoyed success playing together in Pittsburgh.

But that was then.

Now, in New York, the best way to use Jagr is to play him with the team's best center. To Sather's credit, he didn't waste any more time making the connection.

"There were definitely some sparks," said Lindros, when asked about the chemistry with his new linemate. "I don't think we were on, on. But it was a good feeling out there."

That good feeling resulted in a three-point night for Jagr in his home-ice debut and a much-needed win for the struggling Rangers. Jagr, all smiles after being named the game's first star, seemed to like the idea of playing with Lindros.

"He's another big guy and he likes to play in the corners like me," said Jagr, who admitted to being a little scared about his first game as a Ranger in New York. "He's a great player and he creates a lot of room."

With Lindros having rediscovered his form in recent months and Jagr looking to put the shine back on his career, this seems to be the perfect time for these two big names to come together.

"I think this a great opportunity for both of them," said Rangers captain Mark Messier. "It's a great opportunity to (perform to their capabilities) on the biggest stage in the world. And I think it's a great opportunity to do it when the team and the organization have struggled and to be a big part of turning things around.

"At any given time over the last 10 years, either one of them were being spoken about as being the best players in the world. If you look at their ages, they should really be at the peaks of their careers."

Rangers left winger Chris Simon, who played with Jagr for a little more than a year in Washington, spent a good deal of time on a line with Lindros this season, with Matthew Barnaby on the other side. Simon thinks this will be a perfect match for both high-profile players. "Eric is so strong and he's really come into his own in the last month," said Simon, who was moved onto a checking line with center Bobby Holik and right winger Jamie Lundmark as part of the shakeup. "He's been our best player. His physical play is going to open up ice for Jags. And with Jags' skill and puck-moving ability, it will give Eric room, too."

Simon also said it's important for Jagr to get comfortable with his new center, which is one of the reasons why things didn't work out for Jagr in Washington.

"For whatever reason, he and Adam Oates just didn't jell together," Simon said. "The trade [from Pittsburgh] was tough on him, then the press seemed to get on him about a lot of negative stuff."

Despite the tough times in Washington, Simon was quick to recommend Jagr to Sather.

"When I signed here this summer, Glen asked me about him and I told him he's a great guy," said Simon, confirming Sather's long-standing interest in acquiring Jagr. "I really think this a great fit for Jags. We've got a lot of guys who can play at his level. For whatever reason, it just didn't work out in Washington for him. But it wasn't because he didn't work hard or he didn't care."

Lindros thinks hard work and repetition will be the key elements in making the new line, which includes left wing Martin Rucinsky, a big hit on Broadway.

"It works the same way with every line on every team," said Lindros, who assisted on Jagr's first goal as a Ranger. "The more you get to play with people, the better off you're going to be. You're going to figure out strengths in certain situations and you're going to figure out how to minimize or not expose weaknesses.

"I think both guys being left-handed shots, we're probably going to work one side a little bit more than the other. It's just practicing with the same guys and giving it chance, not flipping the switch here and there. We have to practice. We have to work on it. We have to follow through on what we practice and we have to talk about things from period to period."

For the first three periods, at least, the Lindros-Jagr combo seemed to work just fine. Their boss, like everyone else, was impressed.

"Eric has been playing well," Sather said. "He's full of enthusiasm now. He's been like that for the last two months."

And, how about Jagr's performance on Monday?

Said Sather, smiling: "It's as well as I've seen him play."

Around the Hrinks

  • Washington Capitals right winger Peter Bondra likely will be traded before the March 9 trade deadline as part of the club's on-going fire sale. Any club dealing for Bondra, though, had better have a little extra cash on hand; Bondra is in the final year of his contract, but there is a $4.5 million club option for next season. If that club decides not to pick up the option, they'll still owe Bondra a $1M "kiss off" payment. Many of the game's top players have such clauses in their contracts. In Bondra's case, if a club fails to pick up his option, they'll have to cut him a check for $333,333.33 on or before Jan. 1 for each of the next three years. Bondra will turn 36 on Feb. 7.

  • While I'm not a big fan of Russian prospect Alexander Svitov, the Blue Jackets made a good move acquiring him from the Lightning for veteran defenseman Darryl Sydor. In fact, the deal works well for both teams. The Jackets, who remain at least a few years away from contention in the West, get the 21-year-old Svitov, who was selected with the third overall pick in 2001. He has the size and skill to develop into a productive NHL player and could fit nicely into a group of young forwards that includes Rick Nash and Nikolai Zherdev. The Jackets also get to unload Sydor's contract, which has three years ($8.8M) remaining. They can find a younger, less expensive, defender to fill that hole while the team continues the building process. The playoff-bound Lightning, meanwhile, have been looking to add a quality top-four blueliner with big-game experience. The 31-year-old Sydor, part of the Dallas Stars' Cup-winning team in 1999, fits the bill on all accounts. And with young centers Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards already filling the top two center spots, the club could afford to move Svitov, who'd irritated Bolts coach John Tortorella with his spotty work ethic.

  • The Stars have stumbled back into the playoff picture in the Western Conference behind the sensational goaltending of Marty Turco, who was brilliant in back-to-back wins over the St. Louis Blues last weekend. This year, on most nights, Turco has been forced to carry the team, which is scoring just two goals per game and is a more suspect defensive club with the offseason departures of veteran D-men Derian Hatcher and Sydor. Also, Turco has been working without a net, so to speak. He's started 48 of the club's 52 games. Backup Ron Tugnutt, who started the other four games, is out with a groin injury. Coach Dave Tippett says he will eventually give untested Jason Bacashihua a start in the near future. That start won't be on Friday, when the Stars complete a three-game homestand against the Pacific Division-leading San Jose Sharks. Dallas needs a win to stay within stalking distance.

    E.J. Hradek covers hockey for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at ej.hradek@espnmag.com. Also, click here to send E.J. a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

    E.J. Hradek

    Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
    E.J. Hradek is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, joining the staff prior to its launch in 1998. He began covering hockey as a writer/editor for Hockey Illustrated in 1989.
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