The Happy Ranger

Surrounded by fellow Czechs and doted on by his coach, an invigoratedJaromir Jagr is the key to the postseason for the league's bellwether team
April 23, 2006

You canrhapsodize about the casual excellence of the Detroit Red Wings or theexplosiveness of the Ottawa Senators, but the ideal jumping-off point for the2006 NHL playoffs, and there is just no getting around it, figuratively andoften literally, is Jaromir Jagr's booty. His derriere is large enough to causea lunar eclipse, J. Lo-esque in its amplitude and wondrously utilitarian. Whenhe is parked at the right half boards on the power play, Jagr can turn hisformidable backside--"You can hang a license plate off it," New YorkRangers coach Tom Renney marvels--and protect the puck for five, 15 or howevermany seconds he chooses until he spots a vacant passing lane or identifies amoment when he can easily wheel to the net. His rhythm. His whim. The game and,to some extent, the playoffs proceed at the discretion of a 6'3", 245-poundright wing with impossibly thick haunches, a player who is the NHL's top scorersince 1990 and whom New Jersey Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur calls the besthe has ever faced.

The only thinggrander than Jagr's first-team rump, of course, is his moodiness.

In the cartoonworld of the NHL's biggest kid, there are two tiny Jagrs, one perched on eachshoulder. There is glum Jagr and there is happy Jagr, and at any moment it isreadily apparent which muse has his boss's ear. On the proscenium of the ice,his game faces are contrasting masks. Comedy or tragedy? Engaged or ambivalent?Playful or brooding? If his eyes are the windows to his soul, his stats and histeam's standings are an MRI of his brain. A pouting Jagr can suck the oxygenout of an organization. Many former Washington teammates still have notforgiven him for, in their eyes, mailing it in during the 2 1/2 seasons (endingin January 2004) of his tenure with the struggling Capitals. But when he pilesup points on teams that have bona fide Stanley Cup hopes, as he did early inhis career as a Pittsburgh Penguin, he can be a delight.

There is no doubtwhich Jagr is storming into the playoffs, leading the first Rangers team toqualify for the postseason since 1997. He had set team records with 54 goalsand 122 points through Sunday, putting him on the cusp of his sixth NHL scoringtitle, which would tie him with his mentor Mario Lemieux and Gordie Howe forthe second most in league history, behind Wayne Gretzky. His first mostvaluable player award since 1999 surely will follow. Jagr's ability to carry afranchise that squandered hundreds of millions on execrable teams is even moreimportant than the numbers, because the Rangers are a bellwether. As the NHLstrains to escape niche status, the league gets a conspicuous boost when theRangers are relevant. (The last time the league briefly claimed a portion ofthe major sports marketplace was, not accidentally, when New York won the Cupin '94.) The Blueshirts drive the product, and Jagr drives the Blueshirts.

This is happyJagr. Liberated by the league's crackdown on obstruction, he has prospered inhis first full season on Broadway, where he is ensconced among the six fellowCzechs brought in by Rangers general manager Glen Sather and is lauded by acoach who is unperturbed when his resident artiste opts to color outside thelines.

Or to put itanother way, the Rangers put a winning smile on Jagr's face by planting a hugewet one on his you-know-what.

"For fouryears he's been an underachieving superstar with all sorts of issues, and hegoes someplace where they show him the love, and he's happy and he decides toplay hard," says Mike Milbury, general manager of the rival New YorkIslanders. "He's had a marvelous, spectacular year. He's one of thegreatest players ever. Remarkable story of the turnaround of a franchise, whichis clearly good for the league. But forgive me my little reservations on thisthing because I have colleagues in this business [G.M.'s George McPhee inWashington and Craig Patrick in Pittsburgh] who could have looked a lot betteror slept a lot better at night if their star player had shown up for work ontime and worked for 60 minutes, which he didn't because he wasn't feeling thelove. I mean, grow up. Come to the rink and have a professionalattitude."

Milbury's cynicalview of the reinvigorated Jagr is hardly unique. Just irrelevant. When New Yorkacquired Jagr midway through the 2003-04 season at a deep discount (theCapitals pay, and will continue to pay, about $2.5 million of his league-high$8.36 million annual salary through 2009), Sather believed he could find a wayto turn him into something more than the barely point-per-game Incredible Sulkof Washington, a diva whom former Caps coach Bruce Cassidy labeled "a coachkiller." For almost a decade the Rangers had been bringing in big-nameplayers in the autumns of their careers--Gretzky, Mark Messier (the sequel),Eric Lindros, Theo Fleury and Pavel Bure--only to send the team into furtherdisarray. Jagr easily could have been the latest link in this chain ofdysfunction.

But the Rangersrealized that Jagr was a diamond that needed the proper setting. "We metthis summer to discuss how to get him back to being the best player in theworld," says assistant G.M. Don Maloney. "We decided you do that byfiguring out which players best complement him. Glen said it wasn't easybecause in Edmonton [where Sather coached and was G.M.] there were players whocouldn't play with Gretzky because they were intimidated. They'd get him thepuck when they shouldn't have."

The Rangers beganbuilding around Jagr while never straying far from his personal circle. Withina 48-hour period last August, they grabbed three free agents: leftwingersMartin Straka, who was a teammate of Jagr's with the Penguins, and MartinRucinsky, who has known Jagr since age eight, as well as Czech defenseman MarekMalik. Later they landed free agents Michael Nylander, a slick center with whomJagr had a rapport in Washington, and defenseman Michal Rozsival. Midwaythrough the season New York traded for winger Petr Sykora. Other than Nylander,all are Czechs. With the addition of surprising 30-goal rookie Petr Prucha, whoboards with Jagr in Jagr's Manhattan home, the Rangers fashioned a Prague onthe Hudson.

"There areusually five Czechs in the car going to practice every day," Rucinsky says,"and Jags is always making jokes, making fun of himself. He's fun to bearound. He's surrounded by players he likes and who like him. There's a mutualrespect. When he's in a situation like that, he's going to perform." Invirtually cornering the Czech market, the Rangers devoted 30% of their rosterto a nation that accounts for 10% of the 952 players who appeared in at leastone game this season.

Like the RedWings (a team heavy with Swedish players) and the Dallas Stars (Finns), theRangers, who had always been a stride behind the play under Sather, suddenlybarged into the vanguard of a new team-building trend. When Europeans begantrickling into North American hockey in the 1970s--Börje Salming and IngeHammarström to the Toronto Maple Leafs in '73, later Anders Hedberg and UlfNilsson to the Winnipeg Jets of the World Hockey Association--the Noah's arktheory prevailed: It was best done two-by-two. Now, postlockout, a League ofNations approach has emerged. "If you want Europeans on your team,"Jagr reasons, "you'd rather have six from one country than one from sixcountries. You know each other's styles. You can talk easily to eachother."

The Rangers,Wings and Stars all were among the biggest spenders in 2003--04, all needed toslash payroll to stay under the new $39 million salary cap, and all chose torecruit based on nationality to get maximum value for their dollar. Dallasgeneral manager Doug Armstrong, delighted with his industrious, low-maintenanceFinnish players, such as Jere Lehtinen, signed Jussi Jokinen and AnttiMiettinen before the season and then traded for Janne Niinimaa and NiklasHagman; the Stars wound up with six of the NHL's 38 Finns. Meanwhile, Detroitbolstered a core group of three Swedes, including star defenseman NicklasLidstrom, by signing blueliner Andreas Lilja, adding former first-round draftpick Johan Franzen from the Swedish Elite League and acquiring onetime Rangersright wing Mikael Samuelsson, who scored 19 goals in his first 188 NHL gamesbut at week's end had 22 this season. In the Motor City the Red Wings travel byVolvo. "We're all looking for chemistry," says Detroit G.M. KenHolland, who has 16% of the Swedes who played in the league in 2005--06."The question is, How do you find it? Maybe we were a little different fromthe Rangers because it wasn't a master plan to come up with all these Swedes,but once you do have a certain player, it makes sense to complement him with asimilar type of player."

Jagr has beencomplemented, and complimented, by both his teammates and his coach. Thethoughtful Renney, weaned on the tactical gospel of Hockey Canada, wasovermatched in his first NHL head coaching job, when he led the VancouverCanucks from 1996-97 until he was let go 19 games into the '97-98 season. On ateam that had Messier, Bure and Alexander Mogilny and thus enough palaceintrigue to undermine anyone, there was no room for a coach who needed thelimelight himself. Renney, Jagr said recently, admitted that his ego might havecontributed to his difficulties in Vancouver. "Now," Jagr says, "henever says 'me.' When you don't say 'me,' you get a lot of respect fromplayers."

Says Renney,"Ultimately I learned you have to look at the magnificence of those typesof [players] and realize they need a certain amount of latitude. You've got togive the horse the bit, for lack of a better phrase. The thing is, theirteammates are usually O.K. with it. The other players know that whether it's aBure or a Mogilny or a Jags, the guy has a special place on the team.

"I'm a bigproponent of roles and responsibilities," Renney continues, "but I'malso a big proponent of allowing people to use their imagination andcreativity. I can find a way to defend [against] a guy who has a great shot orskating ability or puckhandling skills, but I don't know if I can defend[against] a guy's imagination."

Renney'sparameters for his star are almost all based on Jagr's judgment. If Jagr wantsto extend his shift by 15 seconds to get a favorable matchup against a lesserpair of defensemen, he can knock himself out. If he wants to blow the defensivezone early because the Rangers have grabbed the puck, he is free to go. If hewants to linger with the second power-play unit and spend the full two minuteson the ice, no problem.

"Because wecommunicate and encourage him to play to his strengths and make things happen,I believe you're seeing more of Jaromir in the defensive zone than you have ina long time, or maybe ever," Renney says. "What he's acknowledging tome and to his teammates is that he's in. Not one foot in and one foot out. He'sin." Says Jagr of his coach, "This is a business, but he treats youlike a human being, not someone he owns."

From the momentin training camp that Jagr quietly suggested that someone other than he mightbe more worthy of the Rangers captaincy, to early this month when he correctedthe scoring on what would have been a team-record 53rd goal because he nevertouched the puck--he would notch the milestone goal in his next game--hiscomportment has been beyond reproach. His teammates have responded in kind; ontheir eighth-ranked power play, they often pass up juicy point shots to makesure that Jagr, who has scored 44% of his goals with a man advantage, gets atouch at the half boards.

The deference isunderstandable, given the quicksilver hockey mind that is housed in Jagr'sunique physique. Although Jagr is more of a perimeter player than the classicCam Neely-model power forward, strength is the pillar of his game. He has, inaddition to that behemoth backside, big ankles, bulging quadriceps, massiveglutes, a solid core. "You can't do much against that combination ofstrength and puckhandling ability," says teammate Steve Rucchin. "Thisis the best I've ever seen him play." Add a rediscovered passion, and Jagrmanages a hat trick of hockey virtues.

After a 5-2victory on March 18 against Toronto, Renney gave the team the next day off.When a Rangers official casually asked Jagr how he would be spending his break,he replied, "Going to the [practice] rink and skating." When theofficial ventured that Jagr, who gets 22:02 of ice time per game, fourth amongNHL forwards, might benefit from a rest, Jagr replied, "Do you want to goone round in the playoffs? Or would you rather go three or four?"

His might be aPanglossian optimism considering New York's middling defense, its inexperiencedthird- and fourth-liners, overburdened goalie Henrik Lundqvist's recenthip-flexor injury and the Rangers' seven-year unscratched playoff itch. Theteam's 9-10-4 record since the Olympics--worst among the 16 playoffteams--suggests that the law of diminishing returns might have already affectedthem, but in New York, the law is an ass.

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"Jags is always making jokes," says Rucinsky."HE'S FUN TO BE AROUND. There's a mutual respect, [and] in a situation likethat he's going to perform."

PHOTOPhotograph by Lou CapozzolaFOCALPOINT - Jagr (68) often creates scoring chances--sometimes from behind thenet--and was involved in 48% of New York's goals. PHOTODARREN MCCOLLESTER/GETTY IMAGES[Seecaption above] PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYER (JAGR)TIGHTCZECH-ING - With Martin Straka (left) and five other players from Jagr'shomeland, the Rangers have a new sense of unity.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)