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Savran: Jagr's rebellion doesn't score points

Sunday, November 12, 2000

Is paradise lost? Already? Ivan Hlinka has been on the job for the equivalent of a five-minute major, and the inmates are, if not already running the asylum, then at least plotting to? With just one-fifth of the season completed?

Had this been the Vancouver Canucks or St. Louis Blues, nary an eyebrow would have been raised. But we're talking Pittsburgh Penguins here. Coaches' graveyard, Rebellion City. A franchise steeped in revolt, a mere 11 months removed from a player insurrection. A place where the greatest coach in hockey history was requested to arrive just before the national anthems. A pit where meetings with general managers and clandestine meetings with owners signal an impending coup d'etat.

The issue is not that the Penguins players wanted to revise the system put in place by Coach Hlinka. But their methodology is highly questionable. If they wanted change, why not ask for a meeting involving the coaches?

Why not have an open discussion with Hlinka and his staff, especially when you consider that two of his three assistants, Randy Hillier and Joe Mullen, are first-time, full-time coaches? Why not have an open discourse to amend strategies to benefit the entire team?

Generally, coaches welcome input from players, especially veterans and team leaders. But this group and their captain, under a cloak of privacy, chose to devise their strategies first, then present their list of particulars to the staff. Doing it that way conveys a demand rather than a suggestion. Even if that wasn't the players' intention, it comes off that way. That the coaches robustly agreed with whatever was suggested is beside the point. Even if they disagreed, what would they have been able to do? Demand they play a style the players detested? The players would have won that one, which is exactly the way the Kevin Constantine saga played out.

It's not that change wasn't needed, although it does seem any such meetings were premature, considering they were only 10 games into the season. Some of Hlinka's line combinations, his allocation of playing time, and insistence on playing three five-man units were questionable. Scratching Rene Corbet consistently in the early going was mystifying, given that he's exactly the type of player the Penguins don't have nearly enough of. Playing one five-man unit, even two, is understandable. But by playing three, you effectively eliminate a fourth line, especially with the amount of special teams play we're seeing this season. But that still doesn't excuse the timing and the way the players, and their captain, handled this.

Which brings us to the central issue: Is Jaromir Jagr displeased with the team's style because he feels they have a better chance to win with another? Or is the source of his discontent a belief he can score more points with another?

I don't question Jagr's desire to win. He's a fierce competitor, and you need look no further than his playoff performances. This meeting, however, came on the heels of verbally lashing his teammates, displays of displeasure on the ice, and now this latest tantrum of frustration by sulking and pouting on the bench. All during a personal scoring drought, which causes observers to wonder if it's the team's record or his own that's the basis of his behavior.

It makes me wonder if this has become a turf war. Is Jagr trying to mark his territory as he has done in the past with other coaches? Was the subtext of the meeting in Calgary and his subsequent refusal to take his shift Wednesday night a not so subtle message that he, not Hlinka, is the true broker of power on this team? It wouldn't be the first time.

Jagr says he's misunderstood. But what he must understand is that when he argues with Hlinka in open view, he invites misinterpretation. When he fools around in practice or refuses to take the ice as he did this week, he undermines his coach's authority, setting a terrible example for the players he's supposed to be leading.

A good captain should call a meeting when he senses something is awry. But in this case, the timing of the meeting, how it was conducted, and who was invited to participate was highly questionable. So was the motivation for calling it.

You'll forgive me for being so cynical. But in this town, on this team, there are uncounted precedents for cynicism.

Stan Savran is the co-host of "SportsBeat" on Fox Sports Net Pittsburgh.

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