Jaromir Jagr was -8 after his first two outings last week, which
would have been brilliant after two rounds of the Masters but not
after two NHL games. Peeling off his sopping equipment after
practice last Friday, the dark clouds of his eyes dominating his
usually impish face, Jagr said, "I'm kind of lost right now."
Hockey's most dynamic scorer did find his bearings long enough to
turn right, walk 50 feet, knock on Washington Capitals coach Ron
Wilson's door and invite himself in for a 20-minute
heart-to-heart. Wilson summed up the conversation this way:
"Jaromir feels like a stranger who's moved to a new country and
asks for directions, but when he gets the directions it doesn't
matter because he doesn't speak the language."
Money might be the international language--Washington is paying
Jagr $77 million over the next seven seasons--but only results
talk, and the 11-5 and 5-0 thrashings the Capitals received last
week at home against Ottawa and in Philadelphia were obscenities.
The Senators were given so much open ice that the MCI Center
looked as if it had booked the Ice Capades. Two nights later
Washington allowed a goal on the first shift against the Flyers
and was down 3-0 after just four minutes of play.
Jagr, acquired from the Pittsburgh Penguins in July for three
prospects, was supposed to be the dollop of unalloyed brilliance
that would take the drab, industrious Capitals and make them a
Stanley Cup threat, the missing element on a team that was
forever playing one-goal games. "Even in good times we're
offensively challenged," Wilson says. Surely this thing will
work. One quarter through the season, however, Jagr has been the
brown, tasseled loafers to the Caps' tuxedo. Thrill-a-shift Jagr
has been like a goat with a saxophone: clueless.
Jagr has been hampered by the sprained medial collateral ligament
of the right knee he sustained in the third game of the season.
Like many gifted players, he plays on feel, and he clearly
doesn't feel right. At the end of practice on Friday he was
placing a puck in the right face-off circle and then trying to
take two explosive strides from a standing start before putting
the puck on his stick and bearing down on the net. More often
than not Jagr took a half step and pulled up. He also did a
half-dozen starts and stops without conviction.
Jagr, 29, who's wearing a brace on his bum knee, says the only
time the joint affects him is when he tries to make quick, tight
turns--"I feel like a limo turning out there," he says--but he has
missed seven of the Capitals' first 20 games. This is the guy who
led the league in scoring the past four seasons, but through
Sunday he had 11 points and ranked fifth on his team in scoring.
The other Washington players had hardly been filling the net,
either: Washington ranked 20th in the league in goals. Jagr, a
right wing, had scored on the power play just twice, a stat made
somewhat less surprising by the fact that the Capitals run their
power play down the left side and depend on shots from point men
Peter Bondra and Sergei Gonchar.
Though Jagr is on the ice only about a third of the time, the
malaise in Washington is 60 minutes deep. That the Capitals had a
mere 16 points after their first 20 games was hardly
unprecedented--they had only 15 at the same point last season
before going on to win the Southeast Division--but the poor start
is worrisome given Jagr's presence and a $51 million payroll.
"Last year we were losing close games; now we're getting blown
out," goaltender Olaf Kolzig said before the Caps beat Anaheim on
Saturday. "Right now we're not a run-and-gun team, not a
defensive team, not anything, really. If there was even a glimpse
that we were going to play the way we did last year, I wouldn't
be as concerned, but we've lost our identity."
The identity might have been lost when injuries felled two key,
if lesser-known, Washington players, Calle Johansson and Steve
Konowalchuk. They were the glue of the Capitals. Johansson, 34,
respected enough to have been named captain of the 1998 Swedish
Olympic team, perennially has been Washington's most dependable
defenseman; he's gone for the season after having had right
rotator-cuff surgery last week. Konowalchuk, 29, has been the
Caps' most reliable forward, a Selke Trophy-worthy winger coming
off a 24-goal season; he could be back after the Olympics,
following surgery on his dislocated right shoulder. With
defenseman Brendan Witt away at his father's funeral last week
and fellow backliner Ken Klee sidelined with a rib injury, the
Capitals were missing their top four defensive players in those
two humiliating losses.
The trickle-down effect--center Jeff Halpern is playing himself
out of a spot on the U.S. Olympic team because of the absence of
Konowalchuk on his flank--has turned into a freshet of
goals-against (61, third most in the NHL). Wilson has struggled
to find a winning combination. Against the Ducks, Jagr took
Konowalchuk's spot with Halpern and Ulf Dahlen on the erstwhile
checking line, playing with his third center in three games. Jagr
had told Wilson in their meeting that he thought he meshed best
with that pair. Wilson, who admits he might have "overdabbled"
with his lineup, readily acceded.
"If I were to play the way I played in Pittsburgh, the other four
guys would have to play the Pittsburgh way," Jagr says. "If I
play that way and the other four guys play the Washington
Capitals' way, it's like we're shorthanded. In Pittsburgh we got
the puck, and we didn't just give it away. Here, even if we have
the puck, we dump it in or chip it off the boards. We have to go
fight for it again. On the one hand we don't make many mistakes
defensively. But you don't make as many plays. You're just
skating up and down, chasing the puck. It's frustrating."
"I feel for Jaromir," says Capitals center Adam Oates, who tied
Jagr for the league lead in assists last season. "People think
that because you're a great player, you'll fit in anywhere you
go. It doesn't work that way. Look at Michael Jordan and the
Wizards. He's getting his points, and they're losing. A team's
still a team. You play for a team for 10 years, play a certain
way for 10 years.... Well, our team isn't Pittsburgh. It's hard
to go from being a 120-point-getter to someone who might be
getting 70 or 80. The power play doesn't set up for the guy. The
system doesn't, and chemistry is chemistry."
The stumbling start and aches and pains could mean a replay of
1998-99, when Washington, after making the Stanley Cup finals the
previous spring, missed the playoffs while suffering a surreal
511 man-games lost to injuries, practically turning their arena
into the MRI Center. Though owner and AOL mogul Ted Leonsis
scotched embryonic rumors last week that the jobs of Wilson and
general manager George McPhee were in danger--the last thing
Wilson wants to see on the computer the Capitals keep behind the
bench is "You've Got Mail"--the Anaheim win brightened the mood
only mildly. The MCI Center is Jagr's house now (at least when
Jordan isn't using it), but that doesn't make it home.