Jaromir Jagr, as inexplicable as he is incorrigible, is the hottest player in the NHL. Since Nov. 7 he has risen from the 107th-ranked scorer in the league to the fifth by producing 22 points in his last 14 games through Sunday. That streak prompts a question that has the Capitals squirming: Should they be thrilled that he is again the leading offensive force in the game, or should they be furious because the points blitz only underscores their belief that he has played mostly dispassionate, even sullen hockey since his trade to the nation's capital in July 2001? � In return for a five-year, $55 million contract extension, he was supposed to provide marquee value and offensive clout of the sort that Michael Jordan gave the NBA's Washington Wizards. But any initial buzz receded after Jagr, coming off four consecutive scoring titles for the Pittsburgh Penguins in which he averaged 112 points per season, immediately transmogrified into a point-a-game player. These days the romance between Washington and the 31-year-old Jagr is as stale as tavern air, and both parties are open to a divorce. The 6'3", 224-pound right wing is an extraordinary package of size, strength and skill, but as one NHL general manager says, "If another team has to assume Jagr's entire contract, Washington might not be able to sell him for a dollar."
Jagr finds himself in the same curious straits as the child in O'Henry's classic short story The Ransom of Red Chief. The fictional kidnappers of the boy were willing to pay Red Chief's parents to take back the brat, which is what the Capitals will have to do to unburden themselves of the high-maintenance Czech. If the New York Rangers, perhaps the only suitor and a tepid one at the moment, take Jagr in a trade, it would be irony worthy of O'Henry: Washington could wind up subsidizing the NHL's wealthiest team in its acquisition of a player with a career scoring average of 1.3 points per game, the sixth best in NHL history.
In late October, according to a Capitals source, general manager George McPhee told Jagr that if his play did not improve—Jagr had been held to one point in his last seven games—he would be even tougher to trade. Jagr immediately flipped the switch. Reunited with center Robert Lang, a former teammate in Pittsburgh who was moved up to the first line, Jagr went on a scoring jag, in effect showcasing himself. With the Capitals in Detroit for a game on Nov. 24, he told some of the Red Wings to make sure they mentioned to general manager Ken Holland that he would love to play in Detroit. Jagr can do it all, including develop an exit strategy.
He also started saying the right things on the bench, according to second-year coach Bruce Cassidy, who insists that over the past month, Jagr has been vocal in support of his teammates. "While I'm here, I'm going to do everything I can to help the team," Jagr said on Dec. 2. "You never know. Maybe we start winning and everything's going to be great." Oddly, for the second-worst team (8-17-1-1) in the Eastern Conference, Jagr has become almost a model, playing at a level that rivals any other stretch in his career. He scores, backchecks, even kills penalties effectively in the final seconds of power plays. His passion stands in stark contrast to the first month of the season, when, in the opinion of another NHL general manager, "Jagr had shut it down." The reasons for the disinterested start are murky—Jagr would not comment on his recent split with girlfriend Andrea Veresova, a former Miss Slovakia, saying, "That's personal"—but he did tell Cassidy in October that he was having difficulty focusing, in part because of the severed relationship.
Cassidy and Jagr had gotten into it during a game in Dallas on Oct. 17, after the wing's glacial return to the bench on a line change. Cassidy, whose team had been penalized twice for too many men on the ice in the first four games, told him to step on it. Jagr retorted. "Do you want me to jump on the guys on the bench?" Cassidy and his star traded barbs as TV cameras recorded the moment. "Jags has a past, a reputation for being a coach kill—," Cassidy says, catching himself, "for being tough on coaches. I don't think he dislikes me. He dislikes authority."
By turns, Jagr is ebullient or downtrodden, a middle ground seemingly beyond him. He is as capable of pumping life into a team with a riotously creative goal as he is of sucking the oxygen out of a dressing room by sulking. Capitals left wing Kip Miller, who also played with him in Pittsburgh, says that Jagr's emotions reflect the success of his team. "It all comes from his desire to win, for the team to do well," Miller says. "People say it's because he's a moody guy, but I don't know too many MVPs of the league"—Jagr won the Hart Trophy in 1999—"who are happy when they're not scoring."
He was scoring in the postseason last spring, getting seven points in six games, but Washington nonetheless suffered a disheartening first-round playoff loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. In the aftermath of that defeat, the Capitals decided to demolish their three-line system and create four lines based on accountability and more equitable ice time. That meant Jagr's ice time during even-strength play would be reduced. They also tried to revamp a middling power play, putting a premium on shots from point men Sergei Gonchar and Peter Bondra. A lefthanded shot, Bondra likes to sneak to the right circle for one-timers, which is where Jagr usually lingers when he's on the same unit. The unworkable power play induced Cassidy to try Jagr on what, in essence, was a second unit, giving him man-advantage leftovers with Miller and Mike Grier. Jagr publicly griped about his power-play minutes in Toronto on Oct. 24, then again in a sit-down with Cassidy a short time later.
The coach capitulated, putting Jagr back with the top unit on the condition that he set up along the goal line on the left side and play like a net-crashing power forward. Habits, however, are difficult to break. Last week, in a 4-1 road victory over the New York Islanders that gave the Capitals their only two-game winning streak of the season, Jagr often set up at the right half-boards on the power play. "What we thought about in the summer seems nice on paper, but it's tough to make it work when guys want their minutes," Cassidy says. "We didn't win [early in the season], so now we're catering to our star guys. Jags has input. He's a smart hockey guy, and I listen to him."
But Cassidy also sees the error of his ways. "Sometimes it becomes too much," he says of empowering the stars. "You lose your identity as a coach. I'm trying to get some of that back, get more credibility in the locker room."
Even though he's performed on a diminished level in Washington, Jagr's acquisition has made hockey sense for the team—he led the team in scoring his first two seasons, averaging 78 points, while the three prospects dealt to Pittsburgh for him, forwards Kris Beech and Michal Sivek and defenseman Ross Lupaschuk, have combined to accumulate only 32 points. The fiscal end of the deal has been more problematic. When McPhee made the trade, Jagr had two years left on his existing contract at about $20 million total. The Capitals gave him the $55 million extension plus an option for 2008-09 at another $11 million if he reached easily attainable statistics.