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Savran: Penguins' new era can't include Jagr

Saturday, May 26, 2001

They say the longest step of any journey is the first one. Now that the wound-licking is about to end, and the off-season about to begin, the Penguins face multitudinous decisions that will shape the face of this franchise for years to come.

But before they can get to all of them, they must first make the biggest one, because all others will flow from that: To trade or not to trade Jaromir Jagr? Once that question is resolved, the rest of the decisions and the ultimate direction of the franchise can be addressed.

Would the Penguins have readily brought Ivan Hlinka back unless pulling the trigger on a Jagr deal was a foregone conclusion?

Their relationship screamed of incompatibility, as did their unwillingness to be forthright about it.

Whether Hlinka should have been retained is a volatile subject. Clearly, his adaptation to the NHL is not complete. But one thing is abundantly clear: He won't be able to coach full-out, with the systems Mario Lemieux wants implemented, if Jagr is still here.

Jagr is hockey's Will Rogers -- in reverse. Seems like he has never met a system or a coach, he likes.

Jagr is also the economic linchpin. Everyone is well aware that the Penguins have a third of their roulette wheel chips on 68 Black and Gold. Trading him would give them a chance to keep a good portion of this team together.

Most of the Penguins' coveted free agents are restricted, and you take the term restricted literally. They are not completely free to move about the cabin. But the wild card in all this is that some are eligible for arbitration. Based on their production this season, they will get substantial raises.

The price of poker is going to go up. How much is the pertinent question.

Erasing Jagr from the payroll would allow them to call any raises and stay in the game.

However, there's one just-out-of-scratching-range itch here.

Craig Patrick has always believed a player in a contract year will give you his best performance.

But what happens when a player gets the contract? Alexei Kovalev at age 28, and on that contract year, finally broke through.

But will he go back to being the enigma he was, tantalizing the Rangers and Penguins with his wondrous talents, exasperating them with his lack of production?

Or Robert Lang?

Would it be better to keep Jagr and deal Kovalev and/or Lang at the zenith of their market value?

Would the return be better than what they might get for Jagr because of his personal baggage and burdensome salary?

Perhaps, but it doesn't matter.

For lack of a better term, and because Pittsburghers understand it, the split between Jagr and the Penguins will happen because of the "jagoff factor."

Ten million or not, playoff production or not, I suspect Mario Lemieux the player has seen what Mario Lemieux the owner might not have been able to see: Jagr, for whatever reasons, has become a most unhappy fella. And has become a disturbing, if not divisive, irritant in the locker room.

Consider the change in Lemieux's position on the subject.

While still just the owner, he was steadfast in his resolve to "keep the best player in the world right here in Pittsburgh."

As time wore on, and Jagr's petulance wore on Lemieux, his posture changed. When asked, he would say, "the budget is set, and if we have to move on, we'll move on." That might not be a 180-degree pivot, but it's in that range.

No one, not the coaches, the general manager, or the owner knows the true goings on inside the players-only circle. But once he entered that circle, I believe Lemieux saw and experienced what the other players knew, that Jagr, despite still being brilliantly talented, one who always played the game with great passion, was not playing it with the joy that for so long was the hallmark of his game. And while he still desperately wanted to win, he only wanted to win playing the game his way, and no coach would ever be allowed to install a system unless it was compatible with Jagr's style and beliefs.

Lemieux could only suspect all of this as an owner, but he was assured of it when he experienced it firsthand as a player.

For 10 million-plus reasons, the relationship deteriorated during the regular season and disintegrated during the playoffs. Which leads to this emotional separation eventually ending in a decree of divorce.

Jagr isn't a bad guy, just not a terribly mature one.

He's that rare combination of a bad leader and an even worse subordinate. And a bad fit for where this team is right now, and an obstacle in the road Lemieux wants to take.

Whether the divorce will suit either, or both, remains to be seen.

Stan Savran hosts a radio sports talk show weeknights from 8-9 p.m. on WBGG-AM (970).

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