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7.05.2008

Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

This blog is mostly used for whining about the Mets. And it's July, and there's plenty to whine about.

But allow me to say goodbye to Jaromir Jagr, easily one of the most important players in the history of the New York Rangers, an Original Six team lacking a recent dynasty or long list of elite players.

More importantly for me, too young to be aware of the 1994 Cup, I rooted for the Rangers despite the fact that they were nearly the Yankees of hockey, minus the postseason success. Beginning with Gretzky's penultimate season, the team didn't make a playoff appearance for seven straight years, despite all of the great stars appearing on Broadway (limited run only!): John Muckler (behind the bench), Pat LaFontaine, Mike Knuble, Mathieu Schneider, Petr Nedved, Theo Fleury, Valeri Kamensky, Alexandre Daigle, Mark Messier (Part II), Eric Lindros, Vladimir Malakhov, Bryan Berard, Pavel Bure, Martin Rucinsky, Tom Poti, Bobby Holik, Alex Kovaley (Part II), Greg De Vries, Boris Mironov and Anson Carter.

I list Carter last, because on January 24, 2004, the Rangers acquired Jaromir Jagr and cash from the Capitals in exchange for Carter, and that's where the Rangers' luck began to change.

The acquisition of Jagr seemed somewhat predictable for the Rangers, a team that had tried to add as many talented players as possible, no matter the chemistry between them, no matter their disinclination to play defense, no matter their large salaries – and failed to attend to the pressing matters of defense and goaltending (Mike Dunham was the netminder for that '03-'04 team; Dale Purinton managed to log 40 games).

But Jagr was different. All of the players the Rangers had previously acquired were a notch below elite, had some mitigating factor that made them so easy to acquire: Lindros' concussions, Fleury's love of drugs, Bure's knees. And there were, it seems, some knocks on Jagr - he was a bit of a diva, perhaps had some gambling problems, and had seemed to quit while Washington aggressively tried to trade him.

But he came to the Rangers, soon to be coached by Tom Renney (after Glen Sather decided he didn't want the bench), and the fallen superstar seemed to find his way. Nearly the entire team was shipped off within a few months (save for Messier and Holik), but Jagr still managed some sort of success in that lost season: 15 goals and 14 assists in 31 games.

And with that, the team took to the lockout, and Jagr became acquainted with a lovely little Siberian outlet named Avangard Omsk, after 17 games with the Czech team Kladno, owned by his father (Jaromir Sr.), where he posted 28 points in 17 games.

Omsk GM Anatoly Bardin, who I imagine looks like this fellow on my right, would become a central figure in engineering Jagr's departure from New York, using a mixture of dogged pursuit, Alexei Cherepanov, and (I imagine) polonium to eventually lure the erstwhile superstar to the permafrost.

But Jagr's departure is certainly not the most important element of his Rangers tenure.

What was, though, was the post-lockout season. The Rangers had been reshaped, but at the same time, evidently decimated. They were heading into the season with Jagr as the lone star - flanked only by veterans Martin Straka and Michael Nylander, who had become the team's top pivot after Bobby Holik was bought out. The rest of the forward corps included Marian Hossa's little brother, Marcel, Steve Rucchin, Martin Rucinsky, Ville Nieminen, Jasons Ward and Strudwick, and the Hollweg-Moore-Ortmeyer unit.

The team was to be backstopped by Kevin Weekes.

I remember opening night 2005. Even though I was at school in Massachusetts, I tuned into the game - hoping to see what the new OLN coverage was like, and trying to see the first game of what would undoubtedly be an 0-82 season. Where were the stars? Where was the scoring? Where was the defense?

The Rangers were playing the Flyers, armed with their new post-lockout star Peter Forsberg, who would have been heavily sought after by the pre-lockout Rangers. The Rangers were down 3-2 going into the third period. And then Jagr scored a power play goal. They had tied the game.

Then he scored another. The Rangers went on to win, 5-3, setting a tone for the season: the league would have more penalties, therefore more power plays, and therefore more stretches in which other teams would have to fear the force that was Jaromir Jagr.

Jagr, too, was backed by a bevy of Czechs: newcomers Prucha, Straka, Marek Malik and Michal Rozsival, and midseason acquisition Petr Sykora.

Some other defining games that season: Marek Malik's between-the-legs shoot-out goal, Jagr's hat-trick in a 6-1 win at Pittsburgh, the 5-4 overtime win in St. Louis, and Petr Prucha making a name for himself by beating Martin Brodeur in the shoot-out.

The Rangers that season witnessed an exceptional performance from Jagr (54 G, 69 A - creating team records in goals and points), and the birth of King Henrik. But unfortunately that team's storyline must be its pre- and post-Olympic performances. During the Olympics, the King backstopped Sweden to a championship and Jarkko Ruutu drove Jagr's face into the boards.

The team had won six straight in February going into the games in Torino, but went 1-6 immediately after the Games. Lundqvist looked low on gas. Jagr had slowed as well. Weekes soon had to take some goaltending duty from the King, and the team lost five straight heading into the playoffs.

Nevertheless, the feelings were good - after all, the Rangers had plenty of good moments that season. The team would have time to regroup itself before the playoffs. All would be good.

Instead, they were embarrassed in a sweep by the Devils that really was over after Game 1, a 6-1 romp in which the team allowed five power play goals and Jagr dislocated his shoulder trying to punch Scott Gomez. Without Jagr, the Rangers were powerless. Also, they had Sandis Ozolinsh, who scored at least five own goals - after consuming well more than five shots - during that series.

So the offseason came. We were suddenly worried about Jagr. Whither his shoulder?

In a word, not really. His point production was down by 27, despite adding weapons on the power-play (Brendan Shanahan, Matt Cullen), and even though he was scoring fewer goals and appeared slightly averse to shooting, his passing was as crisp as ever. Nylander had an 83-point campaign and Straka had 29 goals.

Henrik, despite some fleeting hiccups, had a stellar sophomore campaign, and the Rangers, buoyed by the deadline acquisition of Sean Avery, went on a late-season run into the playoffs, during the first round of which they swept the Atlanta Thrashers, putting their previous failures behind themselves. Against Buffalo, the team faltered, though, delivering a crushing mix of hope and despair.

Funnily enough, the chief culprit in that series was Chris Drury, marking consecutive years in which Gomez and Drury shattered Ranger fans' playoff hopes.

So, logically, come July 1, the two were both Rangers (at Nylander's expense, despite his great postseason), and Jagr's stewardship of the club was clearly beginning to come to a close.

The 2007-08 season was more bitter than sweet for number 68, who failed to mesh with Gomez or Drury on the ice. Not only was Jagr not scoring (he had only 25 goals, the lowest total of his career - even including the work-stoppage-shortened 1994-95 season, and his lowest point total since that season), the team wasn't scoring.

Moreover, Jagr's inability to score meant that his pre-lockout contract would terminate at the end of the year. The Rangers had scored a sweet deal, with the Capitals footing a large part of the bill on the rolled-back contract. But that deal would come to an end when Jagr failed to score 84 points, meaning that his presence on the Rangers in 2008-09 would no longer be a sure thing.

The team scored exactly 2.5 goals per game, sixth to last in the league. Henrik was great again, so the lack of scoring couldn't ultimately doom the club, but the cracks in the post-lockout Rangers were starting to show. Jagr was no longer feared, but instead debated. Was he pacing himself? Was he giving his all?

Jagr was eventually working on a line with Brandon Dubinsky and Sean Avery, reminding Ranger fans of the previous season, when he would occasionally work with Marcel Hossa and Brad Isbister. The problem, though, with the aforementioned line, was that it was the Rangers' first line. Come season's end, Drury was grinding on a unit with Ryan Callahan and Brendan Shanahan was banging bodies on the fourth line. Like it or not, the captain's style was, by necessity, the Rangers' style, and if he couldn't work with either seven-million dollar center, they'd stick him with a kid (left) who looks like he's fourteen.

We didn't have an answer until the playoffs, when the Rangers were assigned their familiar foes to the South. The Rangers, as you may recall, beat the Devils in five games, with Jagr getting angry. Jay Pandolfo? Pandolwho?

Even when the Rangers lost in five to Pittsburgh, where their lack of team defense (and Sean Avery's importance to the team) became apparent as ever, Jagr was a tremendous force. He drew three penalties in the final game, despite referees calling the series overwhelmingly in the Penguins' favor.

And when Marian Hossa netted the goal that beat the Rangers in overtime, we didn't know who was more likely to be the Rangers' top right wing when this season rolled around. It could be Jagr or Hossa.

And as we all know now, it would be neither. (I think it's Nikolai Zherdev. Who knows, maybe it'll be Colton Orr?)

***


Evidently, this post has evolved as a post-mortem of the Jagr era rather than an essay on what he has meant to the Rangers. But the two are one and the same: this team evolved the way it did because of Jaromir Jagr's presence. He was the captain for the final two post-lockout years, and, despite being well past his physical prime, led the Rangers to three straight playoff appearances, after seven straight misses, and even won two series during that span.

Even though he will go down as the inferior player of the three, the aged Jagr did what Gretzky and Messier (Part II) couldn't in their tours on Broadway. Sure, he was younger when he took the team to the playoffs, but it would have been quite easy for Jagr to coast here. The team had been a failure, the fans had agitated for Glen Sather's ouster, and they still had failed to develop players from within. (Brief tangent: the dearth of forwards on next year's team means the Hugh Jessiman era might be upon us! He had 18 goals in Hartford last year!)

But Jagr, no matter the knocks that dogged him throughout his career, didn't quit. He, Tom Renney, and Henrik Lundqvist changed the tone of Rangers hockey in their three brief years as figureheads of this team. But not only did they change the team's tone, they made it pretty fun to watch. They were fast and furious, and Jagr (and, well, the dear departed Avery, right) were always there to provide a splash of wit.

Hell, Jagr left town telling former Islanders GM and now NBC hockey analyst Mike Millbury to "kiss my ass."

They de-Dolaned the Dolan Garden (large free-agent signings Gomez, Drury and Redden notwithstanding and still pending), and played with heart (think of all the fan-favorites born in the past few years, compared with only a few enemies: Poti, Malik and Aaron Ward), something that eludes some of their co-tenants - the Liberty play a tight game, though.

I'm not sure where the Rangers will go from here - the Redden signing is already scaring me, and I generally trust Sather - and Zherdev is far from a sure thing. Gomez and Drury are supposed to have bigger and better years, but there's no guarantee of that. Markus Naslund, too, would be lucky to have a season like Jagr's last campaign, an alleged disappointment.

But when I saw that Jagr's time with the Rangers was officially over, my feeling was not so much to think about what's ahead, but rather to think about what's not ahead. Jagr will not be a Ranger lifer, aging gracefully on Broadway until he's set enough records to make himself happy. I know he said he was headed to Kladno in two years anyway, but that he will spending those next two years in Siberia and not in New York makes me worry.

This feels distinctly different than Mike Piazza's final go-round with the Mets. Despite Piazza being longer-tenured on the Mets than Jagr on the Rangers, his departure felt right. Even if we were briefly melancholy, it was evident that Mike was washed up. Piazza was a three-win player (based on WARP) on those 2005 Mets, a far cry from his career peaks. The team was getting younger; Mike was not. And in order for that team to get better, the team had to take on a new catcher, and a new identity.

With Jagr, it doesn't feel like that. Sure, he posted his worst season in years, but was still by far the best player (excepting Henrik) on the team. He carried them during the playoffs. Moreover, Jagr stunned on the ice, not shooting like he did in 2005-06, but backchecking aggressively for the first time in his career, and still making exceptional moves only he could. No offense meant to the current Rangers squad, but not a single one of these players can perform as well Jagr did last year. There's no superstar on this team, and the biggest building block they have is Marc Staal - their offensive weapons are few and far between.

Jagr was not desperate for offers (Omsk was always offering him boatloads of Russian oil money, and Edmonton had a multi-year deal on the table), and Sather was not really desperate to bring Jagr back into the fray. After all, Sather must have reasoned, what use was there making sure he kept together the core of a team that had managed to finish middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference despite being touted as cup contenders for two straight preseasons? And Jagr figured, I'm sure, that there was no point returning to New York when the Rangers were taking strides toward a new direction and Anatoly Bardin was all over him like Madonna on A-Rod.

But perhaps, for all intents and purposes, that afternoon in Pittsburgh was The Last Night of the Ranger Dynasty - Buster Olney, eat your heart out. Sure, a stretch of three straight playoff appearances without an appearance in the Stanley Cup finals, let alone the Eastern Conference finals, doesn't seem like much of a dynasty. But how exactly do the Rangers plan to build around this new group of guys? [Insert Hugh Jessiman joke here. Oh, wait, we already used that one? How about an Al Montoya joke, then?]

I know I'm young and naive, and, according to ESPN, Jagr's deal with Omsk contains no out clauses – he must play the first two years of his deal there, without a doubt - but Sather did say in his farewell to Jagr conference, "... iIf things don't work out for him in Russia that he could call us back and we'll see what we can do." Wouldn't it be great to see him back on this team, at some point? I know I would welcome him back - and I'm sure the city would as well.

***


I guess the more apt comparison from Metland is that of this year's farewell to Shea Stadium. Like Jagr, it has its flaws, and at various points it hasn't served me very well. But there's something comfortable about being there. The Mets have won at Shea - maybe they haven't been tremendously successful there, but this team can play there. I can go see a game there. CitiField is unfamiliar. It's corporate, too - and don't believe what you might hear about naming rights potentially defraying costs.

Saying goodbye to Shea will be difficult, just as difficult as figuring out what to do now with my JAGR 68 jersey. I'll still wear it to games, but will it still hold the same significance? I played on an intramural ultimate frisbee team at school this year, and in an important game, despite the weather conditions nor the necessary range of motion being all that conducive to wearing a hockey jersey, I wore it anyway. It was the playoffs, and I had to channel Jagr, who against all odds was doing what I needed to do in that game. I had my best game of the season.

Maybe you couldn't tell it, but I love Jaromir Jagr. I wrote a European History paper on the Prague Spring, because I had heard that that was why Jagr wore number 68. I needed to learn more about it. Even better, Jagr, according to a 1992 Sports Illustrated article, kept a picture of Ronald Reagan in his notebook as a student, simply because he so admired Reagan and his anti-Communist policies. Thumbs up, Jags.

I've defended Jagr in every arena possible (and by that I mean at MSG and the TDBanknorth Garden, as well as in conversations with plenty of people), and it will most likely be tough for anyone to alienate me from my support of him.

He's gone now, and it will be tough for me to come to grips with that.

But hey, we'll always have Vancouver.

7.04.2008

Opportunity

The Mets had plenty of opportunities tonight, in what seemed to be an unfortunate redux of various parts of the 2006, 2007 and 2008 seasons.

You can take Willie Randolph out of the clubhouse, but it still doesn't mean the Mets can hit a rookie left-hander. J.A. Happ didn't pitch all that well tonight, but one would not have been surprised to see the name "Kuo" on the back of his jersey.

But unlike previous clashes with the untested - and therefore, in Metland, dominant - rookie lefthanders, the Mets had Johan Santana on the mound, who this year has been a living testament to the irrelevance of wins and losses as a pitching statistic.

Santana pitched well. He pitched like Johan Santana was supposed to pitch, cruising through the Phillies' lineup, save for an unfortunate sixth inning (it happens).

The one gripe about Santana comes from the Mets' fifth - the big inning by the wayside. The Mets had the bases loaded, no one out, when Johan, he of the .200/.224/.308 career line (it's better than Marlon Anderson's 2008 campaign), came up to the plate. Johan's bat would be the Mets' secret weapon, allegedly, acquired in the trade with the Twins.

And he looked pretty good - working a 2-0 count from Happ, with nowhere to be put. Then he swung at a bad pitch, probably a ball. Then he swung at another bad pitch. 2-2. Then he popped it up in foul ground.

This was disappointing. While it came from a pitcher, the Mets ought to know that if the previous batter just walked, and the count is 2-0, one ought to take a pitch. Maybe even another.

So up came Reyes, he of the first inning appearance at third base with less than two outs (but not scoring), and he grounded out, earning the team a solitary run. Then Endy walked, and then Wright walked, driving in a run.

And then in came the scariest force of them all: Chad Durbin. No, not J.D. Durbin, who pitched for the Phillies last year (and beat Brian Lawrence in a fateful clash in August) but Chad Durbin, he of the 5.38 career ERA, and no relation to J.D.

The Mets, as they did last year, forced us to durb our enthusiasm. Beltran whiffed, Santana gave the lead back in the sixth, after Durbin struck out the side in the top of the inning and then two of three in the next frame.

Chad Durbin's line: 2.1 innings pitched, seven batters faced, six strikeouts, no hits or walks allowed.

Santana held the Phillies down for the seventh and eighth, while Ryan Madson and Brad Lidge did the same to Mets hitters in the eighth and ninth (a five-pitch inning for Lidge!). And we all know what Duaner did.

This game was not a crushing loss, as far as walk-offs go. The Mets lost with their set-up man on the hill, not Wagner. They weren't beaten by Rollins, Howard, or Burrell, but by Pedro Feliz and the Flyin' Hawaiian.

More than crushing, it was frustrating. The Mets' big, scary bats (Reyes, Wright, Beltran and Delgado) were on base twice: Wright walked once, as did Reyes. Beltran and Delgado combined for nothing but five strikeouts. Who knows, maybe it was an act of silent protest for Puerto Rican independence while Americans in the fifty states set off enough explosives to carpetbomb Greenland.

But this game was frustrating, as this team has been. Losing to the Cardinals with Carlos Muniz on the mound was frustrating, as was this. The Mets are playing seemingly sound baseball, and are winning almost every other game. But what's astonishing is that their wins lately have been romps, not nailbiters - while their two most recent losses have been via the walk-off.

Save for Maine's dead-arm loss to the Cardinals on Monday, the Mets have lost every loss in the last week by one run. Maybe it's a small sample size, but it's indicative of this team's inability to cash in on their opportunities, however limited they may be.

Against the Mariners, in that 8-2 win, they capitalized. In the 15-6 slaughter of the Yankees, they capitalized. In the 7-4 victory against St. Louis, they capitalized - and yesterday, against the same Cardinals, they capitalized.

Their flaws are not uniquely Metropolitan, that's for sure, but look at Santana's recent inability to win games - it has nothing to do with the way he's pitched.

While I'm sure everyone in the clubhouse is thinking this now, Jerry Manuel's Mets must start cashing in, must avoid affairs like this - ones that won't be remembered for the pain they delivered to the fans, but may be remembered should this team nearly miss success like their 2007 predecessors.

Once this series with the Phillies is over, the scheduling gods have granted to the Mets a reprieve - six games against the Giants and the Rockies. Yummy.

But for now, I hope the players are lamenting all of the fireworks they missed. I may have set off a few before and after Pedro Feliz crossed the plate, but I sure missed them too.

7.03.2008

Ouch

You know Troy Glaus and Rick Ankiel - at least one of whom is pictured to the right - used steroids, right?

I think that's all I have to say.

And, oh, wait a second - was CARLOS MUĂ‘IZ pitching the ninth inning of a tie ballgame?

Yes, I believe he was, with a predictable result.

Now that's all I have to say.