George McPhee answered the telephone call from Pittsburgh Penguins
general manager Craig Patrick while on the beach at Hilton Head
Island, S.C., last week, squeezing it in between two critical
appointments--jumping into the waves and building sand castles
with his four-year-old daughter, Grayson, and two-year-old son,
Graham. Patrick was calling to say he was ready to make the
Jaromir Jagr trade. McPhee, the Washington Capitals' general
manager, was ecstatic. But first he needed Ted Leonsis, the AOL
mogul and the team's managing partner, to sign off on the deal
that would cost the Caps nearly $16 million in 2001-02, a big
step for a club that says it lost $20 million last season.
There was one other problem: McPhee didn't have a pen or a slip
of paper to jot down Patrick's number. With a resourcefulness
that should land him either executive-of-the-year consideration
or a Palm Pilot, McPhee wrote Patrick's office number in the sand
with his finger.
With Leonsis's approval, McPhee completed the stunning trade that
moved the Capitals into the elite rank of Eastern Conference
teams but disturbingly underscored a skewed hockey economy.
Washington acquired the five-time NHL scoring champion in the
prime of his career for three middling prospects and $4.9 million
cash. What's more, the Capitals had to outbid only one other
team, the New York Rangers. Jagr, the most dynamic player in the
game, was up for grabs, and it was strictly a buyer's market.
Even McPhee fretted about the league's sand-castle economics.
"We're all concerned when the best player in the world is
available and the market is so restricted," McPhee said last
Saturday, three days after the trade was announced. "We're
delighted it went our way, but it's hard to believe."
The best explanation for the apparent apathy can be found not by
recalling Jagr's occasionally childish behavior--he's 29, although
sometimes he acts as if he's nine--but, in classic Washington
terms, by following the money. Jagr will make $9.5 million next
season and $10.2 million in 2002-03 before being eligible for
unrestricted free agency. His contract simply was too rich for
many teams in an increasingly stratified NHL. "For us to afford
his contract," Carolina Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford
says, "we'd have to increase ticket prices $20 across the board,
or we'd have to attract 6,000 more fans per game. Either way,
we'd still lose $15 million."
An unprecedented glut of quality unrestricted free agents,
especially at forward, further depressed the market for Jagr.
Even the deep-pocketed Dallas Stars chose to go the free-agent
route (signing center Pierre Turgeon for five years at about $6
million per season) to avoid ceding important players in the
trade market. McPhee first trolled for free agents too, but
ultimately got the best of both worlds, acquiring Jagr without
touching his roster. The Capitals shipped to Pittsburgh three
20-year-olds from their system, all of whom were 1999 draft
picks: center Kris Beech, who is blessed with good hands and
vision but not great strength; Michal Sivek, who projects as a
second- or third-line forward; and Ross Lupaschuk, a defenseman
with a big shot. If history is any guide--consider the grab bag of
players and prospects involved in the trades of Wayne Gretzky in
1988 and '96--the three new Penguins will not leave much of a
footprint in the sands of time.
Since the early 1980s Washington has been an earnest,
hard-working team with little flair. Except for right wing Peter
Bondra, who twice has led the league in goals, Washington on the
attack has been as entertaining as seeing a man shoveling snow
out of his driveway with a tablespoon. In their first-round
playoff loss to Pittsburgh in April, the Capitals didn't score an
even-strength goal in regulation until Game 6. Jagr instantly
alters the equation. Even though he had a subpar season, starting
and finishing poorly, Jagr's 52 goals and 121 points earned him
his fourth straight scoring title, a feat previously accomplished
only by Gretzky, Phil Esposito and Gordie Howe.
For McPhee, Jagr is the bridge from playoff team to Stanley Cup
contender. For Leonsis, Jagr comes with benefits besides those
that he hopes will offset the $16 million cost next season--Jagr's
salary plus the $1.2 million the Capitals will pay the other
player acquired in the deal, defenseman Frantisek Kucera, plus
the $4.9 million Washington is sending the cash-starved Penguins.
Jagr provides buzz, which is a valued commodity in the nation's
capital and by last weekend had already translated into 600 new
season-ticket orders (the Capitals were to announce a 10% to 15%
increase in season-ticket prices on Wednesday) as well as Page
One treatment in The Washington Post, whose placement of its
Capitals coverage sometimes rankles coach Ron Wilson. Jagr is an
investment in credibility for a team that was swept in its only
trip to the Cup finals, in 1998, and his arrival will help recoup
expenditures for Lincoln Holdings LLC, which owns the team and
44% of the company that controls the Washington Wizards. With
Wizards part owner Michael Jordan contemplating a return to the
court and Jagr on the ice for the Capitals, Comcast, which has
the broadcast rights for both teams, is renegotiating the teams'
Of course, Jagr is a package all by himself. In Pittsburgh he was
not only a handful for defensemen faced with a quick, strong and
inventive winger, but also for the front office and coaches. In
2000-01 he twice asked to be traded before owner-mentor Mario
Lemieux returned to the ice last December and gave the entire
team a lift. Then Jagr seemed distracted during the playoffs
after Lemieux and the Penguins intimated that they would have to
trade him for financial reasons. "Now that we won another round
and have more money, do you think they'll keep me?" a
half-joking, half-wistful Jagr said to teammate Bob Boughner as
they drove home from the Pittsburgh airport after the Penguins
had eliminated the Buffalo Sabres in the second round.
Previously Jagr had chafed under former Pittsburgh coach Kevin
Constantine's defensive system, and early last season he was
openly contemptuous of coach Ivan Hlinka's left-wing lock. But
the Capitals should be a good fit. Wilson's system presses
defensive responsibility on his centers, allowing the wingers to
roam. Despite some run-ins with Bondra, Wilson has been mostly
successful in handling star players. While with the Anaheim
Mighty Ducks from 1993-94 through '96-97, Wilson extracted a
50-goal season from Teemu Selanne and some of Paul Kariya's best
Jagr, who was in the Czech Republic last week, seems comfortable
with his world turned upside down, but NHL general managers are
still unsettled by the aftershocks. "This trade says, Here is one
of our premier players being given away for substantially less
than he is worth," says Mike Smith of the Chicago Blackhawks.
"Only two teams bid for Jagr? That tells us we need a
restructuring to get things back in line."