NEW PLAYERS 11
NEW RULES HURT
BETTER THAN '03-04? NO
There are two extremes to right wing Jaromir Jagr: the wildly productive offensive dervish who brightens the NHL with his incandescent grin, and the magnificent moper who drags down the mood of a franchise with his needlessly submissive play.
If there is any reason to watch the Rangers this season, it's to see Jagr flash his $8.4 million smile. The league's highest-paid player had perhaps the most successful lockout of any NHL star. He led his team in Omsk to the European Champions Cup title, scoring the game-winner in the final, and then courageously lifted the Czech Republic to the world championship in Vienna while playing with a broken left pinkie.
But it wasn't long before the other Jagr showed signs of surfacing. He lashed out at the players' association for its negotiating blunders and threatened to stay in Russia. ("My heart is pulling me to Omsk," he said.) After deciding to return to New York, he took the occasion of Mark Messier's retirement press conference to make clear that for all his abilities--Jagr has 1,309 points in 1,027 career games--he has no intention, at 33, of filling Messier's void and becoming the team's leader.
The Rangers have already taken steps to keep Jagr smiling, signing Czech forwards Martin Straka--who played with Jagr for nine seasons in Pittsburgh--and Martin Rucinsky, as well as Czech defenseman Marek Malik. Coach Tom Renney says the team acquired them in part because they play "instinctively off one another."
Those combinations, along with Jagr's ability to take over games, may give solace to a team rife with journeymen and middling prospects, but don't expect New York to fulfill Jagr's forecast. "There's no doubt in my mind we're going to the playoffs," he says. Winter will come early to the Garden. Just as Jagr can take a team to unforeseen heights, no star is better at making a bad situation worse. --K.K.
A superior athlete, Kevin Weekes needs to better grasp the nuances of goaltending in order to elevate his game.
• ALL CAPS denotes new player