- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 26, 2003

There will be no news conference today to announce the Washington Capitals have traded right wing Jaromir Jagr to the New York Rangers. Tomorrow? Who knows, but nothing is imminent.

Three ranking sources inside the Caps’ organization, speaking anonymously, scoffed at published reports in New York claiming talks between the two teams, supposedly initiated by Washington, have accelerated during the past two weeks.

“I can’t remember the last time I talked to them about anything, never mind Jags,” said one source. “This is an old story. Must have been a slow news day in New York.”

Would the Caps like to hammer out a trade sending Jagr and his $11million per season salary elsewhere? That query was greeted with silence by all three. The All-Star break from Feb.6 to 9 might be the ideal time to part company if it appears certain the team cannot make postseason.

Jagr — who came out of last night’s game in Buffalo, N.Y., because of a groin injury — has four years remaining on his contract after this season, plus another season at the club’s option. If the option isn’t picked up, the team is obligated to give him a $1million parting gift.

Actually, the Jagr-to-New York story is an old one. It was first reported last June just before the draft in Nashville, Tenn. The leak resulted perhaps in too much of a spotlight and talks slowed. Sources in Toronto and New York reported that talks resumed during the past three weeks despite denials by the Caps, with the Rangers refusing to address the issue publicly.

“This sounds to me like somebody is deliberately planting this to stir things up,” said one pro scout who is familiar with both sides. “Slats [Rangers general manager Glen Sather] did this before when he was in Edmonton, getting the water roiling when things were going too slow for his liking. What he tries to do is get fans and the media to put pressure on a front office to make some move.”

The scout maintains that’s what Sather did three years ago when Jagr was still in Pittsburgh and the Rangers were hotly in pursuit. He sullied the waters with incendiary remarks about Penguins management and its supposed lack of knowledge, but that backfired when general manager Craig Patrick offered Jagr to the Caps, leaving the Rangers embarrassed and out of the playoffs.

Jagr has made no secret of the fact that he would like to play in New York and apparently was assured he would be on Broadway before he was dealt to Washington. But early in the season, he was doing a poor job selling himself with three goals and five points in his first 11 games. Since then, he has moved into the top 15 in league scoring off an eight-game point streak that has produced four goals, 13 points and a plus-5 defensive rating.

That the Caps are trying to trim payroll cannot be denied. They are once again in the top 10 in salary, paying out close to $50million, but have little to show for it. Before last night’s games, Washington was last in the NHL with a record of 6-13-1-1.

Washington is desperate to improve its defense but maintains it can’t make a move because it is already over budget. What makes matters worse is that a long lockout probably will cancel next season, with the work stoppage not ending until the players’ union agrees to a salary cap. The projected cap is in the range of $35million.

This is where the Rangers or Detroit, also rumored to be in the Jagr sweepstakes, have the Caps over a barrel. The combined salaries of Jagr, Olie Kolzig, Robert Lang, Peter Bondra, Sergei Gonchar and Michael Nylander are more than $33million, leaving an unrealistic $2million to pay the other 17 members of the team. It is believed that any team exceeding the cap would have to match that overage with a check to the league.

Obviously, the solution is to eliminate some of the upper crust salaries to fit within the cap, or pay dearly for the privilege of being above it.