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Savran: Taking less for Jagr is more than wise

Saturday, June 30, 2001

The New York Islanders haven't led the NHL in much of anything for the past 20 or so seasons except, perhaps, in missing the playoffs, lowest attendance and bad trades.

And, giving credit where credit is due, they are tied for the league lead in the proud category of former owners in jail. But last weekend, the perpetually lost Islanders showed why it's going to be extremely difficult for the Penguins to deal Jaromir Jagr and get more than designer skate guards in return.

The Islanders were fingered as a potential bidder for Jagr's services. New ownership understood the need for an attraction to fill the empty chairs at the once packed Nassau County Coliseum. Despite the frequent misadventures of general manager Mike Milbury, they had stockpiled some good young talent for barter.

Plus, and don't underestimate this factor in New York, acquiring a star of Jagr's caliber would guarantee headlines, stealing ink from the Rangers and Devils.

But the Islanders turned up their noses at the suggestion that the scoring champion the past four years would look good in their uniform.

One assumed they took that posture because they preferred to stay the course, continuing to allow their young talent to develop, using the second overall pick in last Saturday's draft to add to it. But -- and here's the bad news for the Penguins -- that wasn't at all the case. The Islanders had no problem taking the trade-youth-for-established-stars path. They just didn't want to walk that path with Jagr.

They were willing to trade high-upside young talent, and the No. 2 pick in the draft, for proven players of high pedigree. But they were able to get two of those for less than the price of Jagr.

They got Alexei Yashin and Michael Peca who, combined, will make less than the Islanders would have to pay Jagr. You can't blame Milbury.

For what they gave up, what would be the better return? Yashin and Peca? Or just Jagr? And if you think Jagr's reputation queered the deal, Yashin isn't exactly the poster boy for team harmony and cooperation.

And there's the dilemma facing Craig Patrick.

How many teams now fit a Jagr-friendly profile? Given those parameters, the true intrigue isn't where the Penguins trade Jagr, or the subsequent return, but rather what happens if they can't find a taker or reasonable value in return? Do the Penguins dare take him back?

Chemistry being as vital as it is in hockey, are those 122 points worth the risk of disease within? Jagr's epic battles with the last three Penguins coaches are public record.

As one member of Kevin Constantine's staff told me on the day of their firings, "It's tough to coach when the big guy quits on you."

It goes deeper than that. There are members of the team who would prefer that Jagr skate elsewhere.

This isn't about his disappointing playoffs. No, this sentiment rumbled through the locker room not long after the euphoria of Mario Lemieux's return subsided.

Jagr rocketed to the top of the NHL's scoring leaders and his attitude went in the other direction. Several players noticed, with much disgust.

They don't take kindly to such narcissism. It's tolerated, even accepted in baseball, but not in hockey. And as I wrote a few weeks ago, this time Lemieux saw it up close as a teammate, not buffered by the distance from locker room to owner's box.

Now is the time to tell the story of what perhaps was the last straw ... why the Penguins must accede to Jagr's trade requests.

It's Game 7 of the playoff series against Buffalo. The third period has just ended, and the players are filing off the ice. I am in the area, waiting to do a live interview.

At the other end of the runway, my producer has a view of a section of the Penguins' locker room. Jagr gets to his locker, takes out his cell phone and begins dialing. Whom he's calling (some believe it was his girlfriend) is unclear, but other players notice. One in particular begins yelling at Jagr, angrily questioning the wisdom of making a phone call when you're about to enter sudden-death overtime in the seventh game of a playoff series. This is the captain of the team? I'm sorry, but unless a family member is near death I cannot see any justification for that. Neither could many of the players.

Serious trade talks won't commence until after tomorrow, when unrestricted free agent marbles begin rolling into their slots.

But it's becoming increasingly clear that the Penguins may well have to settle for much less than anticipated.

The only other option would be to bring Jagr back. But unless he is willing to accept free minutes on his cellular as compensation, I don't think that's going to happen.

It's best that it doesn't.

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

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