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Madden: Trading Jagr makes sense

Saturday, March 03, 2001

It was, at one time, unthinkable. But now the idea that Jaromir Jagr could -- and should -- be traded by the Penguins appears on these pages and is discussed on radio talk shows.

Jagr is still the most talented player in hockey, but he also is the game's most temperamental player, and its highest-paid, too. He will earn $21 million the next two seasons. The Penguins' franchise will sag under that burden, and Jagr's salary likely will affect the team's ability to re-sign free agents such as Alexei Kovalev, Martin Straka, Robert Lang, Darius Kasparaitis and Bob Boughner.

Jagr's salary also sets the bar way too high in a sport that depends on ticket revenue to survive, a sport that gets precious little TV money. No hockey player logically should make what Jagr does.

That said, there's only one trade the Penguins should make involving Jagr, at least right now: Ship him to Phoenix for holdout goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin. That would give the Penguins an excellent netminder and cut their payroll by about $6 million to $7 million per year once Khabibulin is signed. The Penguins could then use that extra cash to wrap up all their free agents this summer.

Sure, the Penguins would shortchange themselves talent-wise in a straight-up Jagr-for-Khabibulin swap. But cutting the payroll would be a big priority in trading No. 68. The Penguins basically would be trading Jagr for Khabibulin and the ability to sign Kovalev, Straka, etc.

Phoenix, of course, is trying to dump salaries. But new Coyotes owner Wayne Gretzky would be a sucker for having the best player in the league. He might find a way to make it work.

If the Penguins can't make that deal, they should keep Jagr, try to grab another goalie -- maybe Nashville's Mike Dunham or Florida's Trevor Kidd -- and go into the playoffs hoping their high-powered attack will be enough to get them somewhere. Say what you will about the Penguins' deficiencies -- and they do exist -- but if Jagr, Kovalev and Mario Lemieux get hot at the same time, the team can definitely go places regardless of those weaknesses.

Trading Jagr now would make things tough on Lemieux. Super Mario would find it hard carrying a line on those nights when his back hurts, especially in the playoffs.

The Penguins almost certainly will play out the campaign with Jagr. Heck, they might win the Stanley Cup. It would be interesting to see if that would make Jagr happy. Probably not.

This coming off-season, Lemieux and General Manager Craig Patrick will be faced with tough decisions. Jagr's contract runs two more years. He'll become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2002-03 season. Given Jagr's current state of mind, it's tough to imagine him wanting to stay. It's even tougher to imagine the Penguins paying Jagr the $14 million to $15 million salary he'll command.

Do you trade Jagr for a plethora of draft picks and/or prospects? The Penguins' terrible track record for developing young players shoots down that idea.

Do you swap Jagr for another star? Depends how much money the Penguins could save.

There's no definitive plan for what to do with Jagr. This much is certain: The Penguins can't let Jagr walk away for nothing in 2003. They should gauge Jagr's interest in a contract extension as soon as possible. If he's not agreeable, then trading him becomes a necessity. It becomes inevitable.

If the Penguins keep Jagr for next season, they have to let some free agents go, probably one forward and one defenseman. Keeping Kovalev is obviously a must. Losing a few free agents wouldn't be the worst thing in the world, not if it creates space on the top two lines for a kid such as Milan Kraft. The Penguins have had too many young players such as Aleksey Morozov die on the vine for lack of a proper chance. It shouldn't happen with Kraft, maybe their most talented youngster since Jagr arrived.

There are many questions concerning Jagr. But one looms large above the others: Why is he so unhappy? All that money, all those points, all that glory, playing on a line with the unexpectedly unretired Lemieux -- what does Jagr have to be miserable about?

While Jagr's performance has been statistically solid this season, only occasionally has it been truly inspired. He has been testy since the start of the season, when he flew off the handle after the Penguins lost their first game in Japan. He asked to be traded and constantly talks as if he expects a deluge of criticism.

Truth be told, the media and fans in this town have cut Jagr a lot of slack, both for his whining and for taking the odd night off. If he plays for the New York Rangers -- which, sadly, seems quite probable -- Jagr will get buried alive when he gets his shorts in a bunch.

Maybe Jagr has personal problems, although I haven't heard any whispers. Given the ticket prices you pay, you shouldn't care anyway. It really is a shame. Jagr is the best hockey player in the world, and he doesn't seem able to enjoy it. That's nobody's fault but his.

Mark Madden is the hosts of a sports talk show from 4 to 8 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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