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Madden: Jagr's absence benefits Hrdina

Saturday, November 24, 2001

Jan Hrdina may have scored in overtime to beat the New York Rangers last Saturday night, but his goal was made possible by Jaromir Jagr. By Jagr not being on the Penguins, that is.

Had Jagr been with the Penguins, Hrdina would have tried to give him the puck. Whether he was open, whether he was covered, whether he was on the bench, whether he was in the locker room getting a skate fixed. Hrdina and Jagr were frequent linemates here in Pittsburgh, and Jagr made it quite clear that Hrdina's job was to pass him the puck -- and all the time, too. If Hrdina passed on an opportunity to pass to Jagr, Hrdina was the recipient of a bitter earful.

There's no replacing Jagr's 121 points from last season. If the Penguins miss the playoffs, his departure may well be the reason.

But Jagr's absence may also turn out to be the reason why players like Hrdina finally develop. Why the Penguins' locker room is a more pleasant place. Why the Penguins have better chemistry.

For all his marvelous gifts, Jagr is a lousy teammate. He looks at himself as the lead singer and all his teammates as the backing band. His job is not to enhance their talents. Their job is to enhance his. To get him the puck. To backcheck when he feels like floating.

To be fair, Jagr has an honest kind of conceit. He earnestly believes that he knows more about hockey than anyone, and that his way is the best way -- and the only way -- to win. You can't blame him for wanting the puck. He does pretty well once he gets it

Jagr enlisted Kip Miller into his brand of indentured servitude when Miller spent parts of three seasons as a Penguin. Miller, a fringe player throughout his career, excelled as Jagr's lackey. Miller had 19 goals and 23 assists while skating with Jagr in 1998-99, Miller's only decent NHL campaign. Miller stuck to Jagr like glue both on and off the ice -- reports that Miller carried Jagr's bags on the road remain unconfirmed -- and why not? Jagr helped Miller get a big-league paycheck. Self-esteem likely seemed a reasonable price.

Hrdina, however, seemed shaken by Jagr's demands. he seemed scared to shoot when he was Jagr's linemate, averaging just 1.1 shots per game last season. By contrast, Hrdina had six shots against Vancouver Wednesday, five against the Rangers Saturday. Hrdina often tried to pass to Jagr when there was no space to do so, resulting in some embarrassing turnovers. Hrdina probably still hears Jagr yelling in his sleep. "Janny! Janny!"

Now Hrdina is trying to be a complete player. After a rough start, he's doing OK. Hrdina plays on a line with Alexei Kovalev and Robert Lang, two pretty good players. They, too, expect the puck. But only when they're open. And they don't even mind if Hrdina shoots occasionally.

Hrdina, to his credit, won't criticize Jagr.

"I liked playing with him," Hrdina said. "Obviously, he wanted the puck. But that's OK. He's the best player in the world." Hrdina "thought there was a good chance" he would be traded to Washington to play with Jagr when such a deal was rumored before the season. "But I'm happy I'm here," he added.

It should be mentioned that Hrdina, an affable sort, tires of this line of questioning rather quickly.

Andrew Ference freely says that Jagr often criticized his style of play to the coaches, requesting that Ference not play defense behind him. Why? Because Ference didn't get the puck to Jagr on the breakout fast enough. Jagr evaluates players in one way only: Ask not what you can do for your team. Ask what you can do for me.

Jagr once told me that the best defenseman that ever played behind him was journeyman Dmitri Mironov. Why? Because Mironov passed him the puck quickly and efficiently. Makes you wonder where Paul Coffey and Larry Murphy rank on Jagr's list. The fact that Mironov couldn't play defense worth a damn or that he was soft didn't enter into Jagr's equation. Mironov played for the Capitals last year. Not this year. Not yet, anyway. Heck, maybe Kip Miller will find his way to Washington before the campaign concludes.

I'm not trying to suggest that Jagr being gone is a good thing. It isn't. No matter how well-rounded Hrdina and other players become in Jagr's absence, and no matter how much team chemistry the Penguins develop without him, there's no making up for all that offensive talent. It's just worth noting that Jagr's departure has affected the Penguins on many different levels.

It's worth noting that Jagr's arrival is apparently affecting the Capitals on many different levels, too. Veteran sniper Peter Bondra is reportedly among those Capitals already tired of Jagr's moodiness and attitude. Jagr's act was tolerated here because it had been established over a long period of time. It was largely ignored after a while. But it's pretty tough to ignore in anew setting, especially on a team with a lot of veterans, a team that has enjoyed reasonable success recently.

Jagr isn't a bad guy, and he's obviously not a bad player. He just has a different way of looking at things. He's like an opera singer warming up: "Me-me-me-me-me-me-me-me-me!"

Mark Madden's talk show can be heard from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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