- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 26, 2001

When the Washington Capitals made the Jaromir Jagr deal last July, Frantisek Kucera's name wasn't even in most of the stories. He was the throw-in: the player with a decent contract the Penguins were trying to dump, the guy who the Caps had to accept for the trade to go through.
A few months down the road, Jagr is still the key element in the deal, but Kucera has developed into far more than a throw-in.
"I don't know where we'd be if he wasn't in our organization," coach Ron Wilson said of Kucera. "He's come in and done such a great job. He's plus seven [defensively] since he's been here, and that's a remarkable figure when you've played less than 20 games. You're on a plus-30 pace, which in today's game is unbelievable."
The 6-foot-2, 215-pounder played fairly well in camp but wasn't a standout. The Caps had a core of players on hand who had NHL experience and a few promising prospects they wanted to evaluate. Kucera was sent back to his Elite League team in Prague, where he would make about $50,000 a year instead of $1.2million with the Caps.
But the situation changed in a hurry. Kucera was called back when veteran Calle Johansson was lost for the season after rotator cuff surgery. There was no one in the organization even remotely qualified to step into his skates.
If it's pedigree the Caps wanted, Kucera has it. He has played more than 400 games in the NHL; won Olympic gold with the Czechs in Nagano, Japan; played in a couple of world championships; and was the MVP of the Elite League with Sparta-Praha three years ago when he finished with a plus-49 defensive rating.
But his last stay with an NHL team, only seven games with the Penguins last season, didn't turn out well, even Kucera admits, and that followed a less than spectacular stint with Columbus. At 33, he was thinking his NHL days were over.
"I had spent eight years [in the NHL], so when they sent me back to Europe after training camp I didn't think I was going to be back," Kucera said. "There was also a little difficulty because then they did call me back here, but my family was over there and suddenly, 'Oh my God, what am I going to do?' But yes, I'm glad I'm back if I'm playing hockey every day."
He is not only playing every game, but he is averaging more than 20 minutes a game, putting him among the top four defensemen on the team.
"I really respect his ability to clear the puck out of our end and clear it in a fashion that gets the offense going," Wilson said. "That's one of the reasons he's a plus player things happen in a positive way when Frank's on the ice, and he knows how to join the attack. He doesn't get caught out of position; you see what experience and positioning [are] all about. He's not a great skater, but he's efficient. Essentially he relies on his smarts and positioning to get the job done, and in that sense he's a lot like Calle."
Kucera knew what he was getting into when he returned, filling in for the club's best all-around defenseman. But that didn't bother him; he simply wanted to be the best that Frank Kucera could be, not another Calle Johansson.
"So far I feel good about my game, but I think I can play better," he said. "Because Calle is out, that's why I'm here and that's why I'm playing good because I'm playing a lot. I want to have a good feeling about my play on the ice. If I ever feel I am not good enough for the league, I am going to quit."
He recently made a huge personal decision, turning down an invitation to play for the Czech national team in the Olympics in Salt Lake City. He is going to spend the time at home with his wife, two sons and daughter.

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