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Madden: Lemieux knows Jagr must go

Saturday, April 28, 2001

Mario Lemieux wasn't setting the stage to trade Jaromir Jagr when, in interviews Wednesday and Thursday, he criticized Jagr's play. Lemieux was just trying to coax Jagr into doing better.

Here's hoping Jagr performs at a higher level because these playoffs will be his last games as a Penguin. He definitely will be traded during the off-season. That was set in stone long before Lemieux said Jagr "could play better." It has zero to do with Jagr's play and everything to do with economics.

My advice to local hockey fans is this: Appreciate the time you have left with Jagr. He is arguably one of hockey's 20 best players ever. And don't you dare boo him when he comes back to Pittsburgh with the New York Rangers or Tampa Bay Lightning. Jagr deserves better.

But he's got to go. Jagr makes too much money. Keeping him and his $10 million-plus salary would mean not re-signing free agents such as Alexei Kovalev, Martin Straka, Robert Lang, Darius Kasparaitis and Bob Boughner this summer. Then Jagr leaves as an unrestricted free agent in 2003 -- he'll be way out of the Penguins' price range in an open bidding war -- and Lemieux retires not long after. The Penguins would be left with a skeleton of a team.

This isn't subject to debate. But a lot of Pittsburghers don't realize that.

Talk-show callers, likely brainwashed by Howard Baldwin's way of doing things, bellow like wounded buffalo when the thought of trading Jagr is broached. "He's the best player in the world!" they cry. "Do whatever it takes to keep this team together! It could win two or three Stanley Cups before Lemieux retires! Keep Jagr! Keep Kovalev and all those other guys, too! This team can win!"

If "this team" can collect two or three Cups before Lemieux retires, how come it's not favored to win the current tournament? There seems to be a notion among the locals that you can't win a Cup without Lemieux and Jagr. Memo to citizens: It's been done eight times since 1992.

Baldwin nearly put the Penguins in Portland, Ore., by trying to "keep this team together" in the mid-'90s. By not adhering to a budget and spending more than the franchise could afford. The Penguins were in bankruptcy court less than two years ago. Have you forgotten that near-disaster already?

Some say that interest in the Penguins will wane once Jagr is traded and Lemieux retires. That's typical Pittsburgh sports fan arrogance. Why do you deserve the best of everything all the time?

Pittsburgh has been blessed with the best hockey player in the world -- Lemieux or Jagr -- nonstop since 1984. The Penguins have been the town's most successful sports team the past decade. If people stop going to games when Lemieux and Jagr are gone, it just proves once again that Pittsburgh is a myth when it comes to being a great sports town.

I prefer to look on the bright side. Jagr, as Lemieux said, clearly isn't having as much fun as he should be. He's probably ready for a little big-city living. Or beachfront living. Jagr will he happier elsewhere. Or maybe he just can't be happy anywhere. But it's time to let him see if the grass is greener.

Trust General Manager Craig Patrick to make the right deal. Jagr is a great player, and other teams will see him as a drawing card. (Hopefully, they won't check the Penguins' non-Lemieux attendance figures.) Patrick has said that whichever team gets the best player gets the better of any deal, so getting fair return for Jagr will be hard. But perhaps Patrick can get enough to give the Penguins depth.

Depth is what wins Stanley Cups. Not stars. Depth.

The New Jersey Devils have no player in the class of Lemieux and Jagr. But they won the Stanley Cup last year. Same with Dallas. They won the Cup in 1999. Some teams have stars and depth, like the Penguins in 1991 and '92. But you don't win without depth.

The Penguins have some depth now, especially on offense. If Patrick makes the right deal with Jagr, if the club re-signs its key free agents such as Kovalev and Straka. and if promising youngsters such as Milan Kraft and Brooks Orpik develop and assume major roles, the Penguins could have a very deep team led by a superstar in Lemieux. They might actually be closer to a Cup after trading Jagr. The Los Angeles Kings traded Rob Blake, their best player, but got good return and became a better team within weeks.

Trading Jagr might be a bitter blow to the discerning consumers who call themselves die-hard sports fans in this town. I think Jagr eventually will regret it, too, especially if he goes to a city where the team stinks and where the organization and media don't treat him with kid gloves. If Jagr played for the Rangers, for example, the New York Post would no doubt be accusing him of faking his injury Thursday night because he was wounded by Lemieux's comments.

But if Patrick makes the right deal, trading Jagr could turn out to be a good thing for the Penguins. At any rate, trading Jagr is not an option. It's inevitable and inescapable.

Mark Madden's talk show is heard 4-8 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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