Jaromir Jagr was-8 after his first two outings last week, which would have been brilliant after two rounds of the Masters but not after two NHL games. Peeling off his sopping equipment after practice last Friday, the dark clouds of his eyes dominating his usually impish face, Jagr said, "I'm kind of lost right now." Hockey's most dynamic scorer did find his bearings long enough to turn right, walk 50 feet, knock on Washington Capitals coach Ron Wilson's door and invite himself in for a 20-minute heart-to-heart. Wilson summed up the conversation this way: "Jaromir feels like a stranger who's moved to a new country and asks for directions, but when he gets the directions it doesn't matter because he doesn't speak the language."
Money might be the international language—Washington is paying Jagr $77 million over the next seven seasons—but only results talk, and the 11-5 and 5-0 thrashings the Capitals received last week at home against Ottawa and in Philadelphia were obscenities. The Senators were given so much open ice that the MCI Center looked as if it had booked the Ice Capades. Two nights later Washington allowed a goal on the first shift against the Flyers and was down 3-0 after just four minutes of play.
Jagr, acquired from the Pittsburgh Penguins in July for three prospects, was supposed to be the dollop of unalloyed brilliance that would take the drab, industrious Capitals and make them a Stanley Cup threat, the missing element on a team that was forever playing one-goal games. "Even in good times we're offensively challenged," Wilson says. Surely this thing will work. One quarter through the season, however, Jagr has been the brown, tasseled loafers to the Caps' tuxedo. Thrill-a-shift Jagr has been like a goat with a saxophone: clueless.
Jagr has been hampered by the sprained medial collateral ligament of the right knee he sustained in the third game of the season. Like many gifted players, he plays on feel, and he clearly doesn't feel right. At the end of practice on Friday he was placing a puck in the right face-off circle and then trying to take two explosive strides from a standing start before putting the puck on his stick and bearing down on the net. More often than not Jagr took a half step and pulled up. He also did a half-dozen starts and stops without conviction.
Jagr, 29, who's wearing a brace on his bum knee, says the only time the joint affects him is when he tries to make quick, tight turns—"I feel like a limo turning out there," he says—but he has missed seven of the Capitals' first 20 games. This is the guy who led the league in scoring the past four seasons, but through Sunday he had 11 points and ranked fifth on his team in scoring. The other Washington players had hardly been filling the net, either: Washington ranked 20th in the league in goals. Jagr, a right wing, had scored on the power play just twice, a stat made somewhat less surprising by the fact that the Capitals run their power play down the left side and depend on shots from point men Peter Bondra and Sergei Gonchar.
Though Jagr is on the ice only about a third of the time, the malaise in Washington is 60 minutes deep. That the Capitals had a mere 16 points after their first 20 games was hardly unprecedented—they had only 15 at the same point last season before going on to win the Southeast Division—but the poor start is worrisome given Jagr's presence and a $51 million payroll. "Last year we were losing close games; now we're getting blown out," goaltender Olaf Kolzig said before the Caps beat Anaheim on Saturday. "Right now we're not a run-and-gun team, not a defensive team, not anything, really. If there was even a glimpse that we were going to play the way we did last year, I wouldn't be as concerned, but we've lost our identity."
The identity might have been lost when injuries felled two key, if lesser-known, Washington players, Calle Johansson and Steve Konowalchuk. They were the glue of the Capitals. Johansson, 34, respected enough to have been named captain of the 1998 Swedish Olympic team, perennially has been Washington's most dependable defenseman; he's gone for the season after having had right rotator-cuff surgery last week. Konowalchuk, 29, has been the Caps' most reliable forward, a Selke Trophy-worthy winger coming off a 24-goal season; he could be back after the Olympics, following surgery on his dislocated right shoulder. With defenseman Brendan Witt away at his father's funeral last week and fellow backliner Ken Klee sidelined with a rib injury, the Capitals were missing their top four defensive players in those two humiliating losses.
The trickle-down effect—center Jeff Halpern is playing himself out of a spot on the U.S. Olympic team because of the absence of Konowalchuk on his flank—has turned into a freshet of goals-against (61, third most in the NHL). Wilson has struggled to find a winning combination. Against the Ducks, Jagr took Konowalchuk's spot with Halpern and Ulf Dahlen on the erstwhile checking line, playing with his third center in three games. Jagr had told Wilson in their meeting that he thought he meshed best with that pair. Wilson, who admits he might have "overdabbled" with his lineup, readily acceded.
"If I were to play the way I played in Pittsburgh, the other four guys would have to play the Pittsburgh way," Jagr says. "If I play that way and the other four guys play the Washington Capitals' way, it's like we're shorthanded. In Pittsburgh we got the puck, and we didn't just give it away. Here, even if we have the puck, we dump it in or chip it off the boards. We have to go fight for it again. On the one hand we don't make many mistakes defensively. But you don't make as many plays. You're just skating up and down, chasing the puck. It's frustrating."
"I feel for Jaromir," says Capitals center Adam Oates, who tied Jagr for the league lead in assists last season. "People think that because you're a great player, you'll fit in anywhere you go. It doesn't work that way. Look at Michael Jordan and the Wizards. He's getting his points, and they're losing. A team's still a team. You play for a team for 10 years, play a certain way for 10 years.... Well, our team isn't Pittsburgh. It's hard to go from being a 120-point-getter to someone who might be getting 70 or 80. The power play doesn't set up for the guy. The system doesn't, and chemistry is chemistry."