- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 29, 2008

PITTSBURGH — The long-flowing locks and the explosive first step are gone, but the unpredictable personality and undeniable talent remain.

It was not a great regular season by Jaromir Jagr’s standards or even a good one. But there have been flashes of the old No. 68 the past few weeks, and he remains a central figure in the New York Rangers’ quest for a Stanley Cup.

Jagr finished the season with 25 goals, good enough to lead the defensive-minded Rangers but the lowest total of his 17-year NHL career. His 71 points eclipsed only his first two seasons in the league and the lockout-shortened 1994-95 campaign.

“He didn’t have a good start to the season, and he was very frustrated,” Rangers defenseman Michal Rozsival said. “I think he realized he wasn’t in as good of shape as years before and the way teams play against him has changed. He has really worked hard to get back to his level of play, whether it was in a gym or staying longer after practice. He was kind of fighting it, but the last couple of months all the hard work he put it during the season has helped him.”

The 36-year-old Jagr had eight points in the final five games before racking up eight in five playoff games against the New Jersey Devils and two more in Game 1 of this Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Still, the ability to dominate consistently now may be beyond his grasp. After a wild series opener, the Penguins shut out the Rangers in Game 2, and specifically 19-year-old Jordan Staal’s line kept Jagr from creating much offense.

“There wasn’t many chances,” Jagr said. “It was totally different game than Game 1. Both teams played tighter defense and more responsible in their own zone.”

Jagr was once the toast of this town, playing Robin to Mario Lemieux’s Batman. He won the Stanley Cup in his first two seasons and went on to capture five scoring titles. But just as he would a few years later with Washington, Jagr had a falling out with the team and the fans after Lemieux’s departure, and the crowd now lustily boos its former hero whenever he touches the puck.

Before this series began, Jagr finally told reporters his side of the story about the events leading up to his trade to the Capitals in 2001, but it only enraged local sports talk radio types and provided more ammunition for his critics.

That is part of the fascinating tale of Jagr’s career. For 17 years he has been one of the sport’s most dynamic talents, a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame. Still, he is often left out of discussions of the game’s all-time greats even though only eight players have more than his 1,599 career points. While he has won three Pearson trophies — the MVP as voted on by the players — only once did he capture the Hart trophy — the MVP award voted on by the media.

“There is ‘the buts.’ Jagr is great but … He’s won scoring titles but …,” said Phil Bourque, who played with Jagr when he came into the league and is now a radio analyst for the Penguins. “It is his personality and his demeanor. I think part of it is he’s misunderstood. I think part of it is he likes to say things to get shock value or to see the reaction he’s going to get from the media or the people reading the quotes.

“I also think even though he’s in his mid-30s, he still has a little bit of that immaturity at times. That’s just who he is. It isn’t necessarily a knock on him. He has mood swings, and he doesn’t hide them very well.”

After leaving Pittsburgh, more trouble followed during a turbulent tenure with Washington. The Caps traded for Jagr and then signed him to a seven-year, $77 million contract. His performance slipped, and he clashed with the coaching staff — something he did frequently with the Penguins as well.

When owner Ted Leonsis and general manager George McPhee decided to start over, shedding themselves of Jagr was No. 1 on the priority list.

“Obviously he is one of the best players in the world and of all time,” said Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar, who was one of Jagr’s teammates with the Caps. “It is tough for the guy changing to a new team. He obviously started his career in Pittsburgh and grew up as a player over here. Then he changed cities and came into a new atmosphere. It was a lot of new things for him, and I think he was adjusting. Maybe he didn’t have enough time there to really develop.”

This is likely the final year of Jagr’s contract, which has become something of an albatross for the Caps organization. To rid himself of Jagr, Leonsis has had to pay $3.46 million of Jagr’s salary for the past three seasons.

There is an option for next season, but Jagr is running out of ways to have it kick in. He did not score 40 goals or collect 84 points during the regular season, which along with winning the first-round series against the Devils, would have activated it.

Now his only hope is to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the playoffs — something he won’t be able to do if the Rangers don’t find their way out of this 2-0 hole beginning tonight with Game 3 at Madison Square Garden.

His future is very much uncertain. The Rangers may want him back but at a fraction of his current salary ($8.36 million because of the 24 percent rollback after the lockout). He has told reporters he would consider playing in Russia next season. Retirement cannot be ruled out.

If this is the end, it will be interesting to see how Jagr, one of the most enigmatic superstars in any sport, is remembered. All 12 retired players in the top 14 on the NHL’s all-time scoring list have a jersey hanging in the rafters of an NHL arena. Colorado’s Joe Sakic certainly will join them, but whether Jagr will remains in question.

“I played with him for half a season in New York, and I never laughed so much in my life as I did just sitting beside him on the plane,” said Penguins forward Petr Sykora, who rents Jagr’s house in the area. “He could be the funniest guy I’ve ever been around in all these years. He was really a leader when I was there, and I think he is now, too.

“For me it feels special to live in his place because we’re from the [Czech Republic] and he is the best ever from our country. He’s still kind of my idol. Back home, he is a huge hero.”

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