Optimism and defeat all in one trade

With Jaromir Jagr, the Rangers have hope. Without him, the Capitals do, too.

Updated: January 25, 2004, 6:11 PM ET
By Jim Kelley | ESPN.com

The knee-jerk reaction is to laugh in the face of New York Rangers general manager Glen Sather and pull out all the old brickbats about how the Rangers never get it right, never address the team's real needs and never, never, never lose their fascination for going for the big score when something akin to the big stay-at-home defender is what's really needed.

Will Jaromir Jagr be inspired when he steps on Garden ice?
Go ahead, laugh, and we'll laugh right along with you. But for the record, New York's acquisition of Jaromir Jagr for Anson Carter and a reconfiguration of a boatload of cash isn't just going to hike the ratings for Cablevision in the New York metropolitan market.

It could also put the Rangers in the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons.

That of course does little for the Washington Capitals, but we'll address them later. For now, we'll go out on a limb and say the Rangers will make the playoffs because of this deal.

Of course, the Rangers have their problems. They're an undisciplined team, they don't play much of a system (actually, they do have one, they just don't play it much) and they are far too thin on defense to make a run for the Stanley Cup. But as the old adage goes, when the goal is to drain the swamp, the Rangers actually may have got a shovel they needed.

Without Jagr, the Rangers had a chance to make the playoffs. With him, those chances are even better.

Jagr won't stop goals, but he'll score them. He's averaging about a point a game for a team, the Washington Capitals, a team he never really wanted to play for in a city he never wanted to play in. Just stepping foot onto Madison Square Garden ice is likely to adjust the attitude of one of the greatest offensive players the game has ever known. That alone should enable the Rangers to simply outgun a great many of their opponents.

Sure, it won't work against the Toronto Maple Leafs or the Ottawa Senators or the Philadelphia Flyers, the top Eastern Conference teams that the Rangers meet, greet and lose to on a regular basis. But passing those teams in the standings isn't the goal. The goal is to get past clubs such as the New York Islanders , currently two points ahead in the eighth and final playoff spot in the East, and the Atlanta Thrashers, who have the same number of points as the Islanders but have enough defensive problems of their own to prevent them from making the postseason unless they finish first in the Southeast Division.

Measured in that capacity, the Rangers, with just a bit more offense, stand a very good chance.

Put Jagr on a line say with Eric Lindros and Matthew Barnaby. Barnaby is an adequate cornerman who can get the puck to either Lindros or Jagr, and Lindros is a the bull of a center who can occupy the middle ground in front of opposing goaltenders. Put Jagr on a line with them and his point production is likely to increase by a considerable margin. In turn, Jagr will increase the production of Lindros and Barnaby, substantially increase production on the Rangers' power play and open the ice for even more production by New York's second and third lines, which, contrary to popular belief, aren't all that bad to begin with.

SATHER'S N.Y. SHOPPING SPREE
A list of players acquired by president/GM Glen Sather since he traded for Eric Lindros, including their current base salary:
Player, Pos. 03-04 Salary
Eric Lindros, C
Trade, 8/20/01
$3,300,000
Matthew Barnaby, RW
Trade, 12/12/01
$1,587,500
Boris Mironov, D
Trade, 1/8/02
$1,925,000
Tom Poti, D
Trade, 3/9/02
$2,800,000
Pavel Bure, RW*
Trade, 3/18/02
$10,000,000
Bobby Holik, C
Free agent, 7/1/02
$8,850,000
Darius Kasparaitis, D
Free agent, 7/2/02
$4,200,000
Mike Dunham, G
Trade, 12/12/02
$3,300,000
Alexei Kovalev, RW
Trade, 2/10/03
$6,600,000
Dan LaCouture, LW
Trade, 2/10/03
$612,500
Anson Carter, RW**
Trade, 3/11/03
$2,800,000
Jussi Markkanen, G
Trade, 6/30/03
$642,500
Greg de Vries, D
Free agent, 7/14/03
$4,200,000
Chris Simon, LW
Free agent, 7/25/03
$1,500,000
Jan Hlavac, LW
Free agent, 8/28/03
$1,000,000
Martin Rucinsky, LW
Free agent, 8/28/03
$1,650,000
Jaromir Jagr, RW
Trade, 1/23/03
$11,000,000
Total $54,967,500
* - out for season. Insurance will cover portion of salary.
** - traded for Jagr.
But what about the Rangers' defense and the fact that, on most every occasion, they let in goals the way George Bush wants to assimilate illegal aliens? Surely Jagr can't fix that.

Ah, true, but that too can be fixed.

The Rangers are somewhat dysfunctional on the blue line right now, especially with long-term injuries to Greg de Vries and Darius Kasparaitis. But there's a good chance one, or both could make it back before the playoff positions are all decided. Perhaps more important, Sather can mortgage some of the future -- not a new concept anywhere in New York State -- for a little more in the present.

It's fair to speculate that many teams will be dumping contracts before the March 9 trade deadline. The Rangers, a franchise that has long adhered to the tenets put forth at the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor (give me your poor, your tired and, to paraphrase a bit, your soon-to-be free agents yearning to munch at the cash trough that has long been the Madison Square Garden pay window), have money to spend, so there's no telling how many backline bodies Sather can line up to shore up a corps that has allowed the sixth most goals in the league this season.

Is it all speculation? Beyond Jagr's contributions, yes.

Is it all sounding very much like the recent past when Sather acquired every little loose (and expensive) trinket south of Tiffany's Fifth Avenue windows? Yes.

Is it all impossible? Not really.

If there were only a week or two left in the season, we'd laugh right out loud. But the NHL season has yet to hit the All-Star break. The Rangers have 47 points and 34 games left to play. That's plenty of time to make up a two-point gap and create one that's even bigger. Given the thinness in the Montreal Canadiens' lineup and the injuries plaguing the New Jersey Devils and even the Boston Bruins, the Rangers are closer to closing the gap on those middle-of-pack playoff teams (56-57-58 points respectively) rather than falling to also-ran ranks inhabited by Buffalo, Carolina, Florida, Washington and Pittsburgh.

Is it a perfect scenario? No. Jagr comes with baggage, not the least of which is an attitude that tends to sour when things don't go his way. On a team with far too many players of the same mind-set, that's a problem. But this is still a doable deed, especially if acquiring Jagr is just the first of several steps being taken to address the team's needs.

In the big picture, the Rangers will wake up knowing that they are a better team than they were Friday morning. That counts for something in New York.

And if it's the only move the Rangers make, it still could be enough to find a spot in the postseason. They may not last long, but when your initial objective is to make the postseason, well, the swamp can wait for a later time.

In Washington, however, it's a far different story.

The Capitals began the season with a payroll of just over $50 million, and the franchise was projecting losses of near $30 million. Even a Pentagon accountant can figure that even if that's a half-truth, those numbers don't work.

Sources tell ESPN.com that Capitals management pretty much conceded that the playoffs were out of reach after Wednesday's 3-2 loss to the Maple Leafs. That loss left them with 35 points over 48 games and a lot of difficult decisions that could no longer be put off.

Cutting payroll would be the first place to start.

Jagr makes some $11 million per season, and even if the Caps have to pick up a quarter to a third of that, his departure -- even with the acquisition of Carter -- still represents a significant savings. There are also rumors, very strong rumors, that the Caps are considering moving some of their other high-profile, high-priced players, including scoring ace Peter Bondra, defenseman Sergei Gonchar and perhaps even goalie Olaf Kolzig.

Not all are likely to go, but considering the Capitals hockey department held high-level meetings out of town this week, there's no doubt that reconfiguration plans were worked out.

Sources tell ESPN.com that Kolzig and Bondra could still stay, joining Robert Lang as legitimate gate attractions, while a full-scale rebuilding program gets under way. The Capitals have a certain loyalty to some of the players who were there when times were better -- like the 1998 run to the Stanley Cup finals -- but if a veteran doesn't want to be part of a rebuilding program ... well, wishes are known to be accommodated from time to time and Washington general manger George McPhee is not a vindictive or mean-spirited man.

Gonchar is rumored to be headed to Ottawa, but there's also talk that the Dallas Stars are interested. If Kolzig isn't deemed to be among the untouchables or asks for a move, Philadelphia might be interested, along with the Colorado Avalanche or several other Cup-minded clubs.

Lopping some $10 million to $12 million off the payroll is the likely goal for Washington. Doing it before the market becomes flooded with talent of other teams that are dumping salary in anticipation of a restructured NHL under the terms of a new collective bargaining agreement is just good management.

It's not likely to inspire hope among Capitals faithful fans, not in the short term at least, and it may even chase away a portion of them. But those who remain couldn't begin to see their team start a restructuring with Jagr still on the roster and his salary still on the books.

With Jagr and the crushing weight of the bulk of his salary gone, the rebuilding program in Washington can begin.

Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.

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