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You can rhapsodize about the casual excellence of the Detroit Red Wings or the explosiveness of the Ottawa Senators, but the ideal jumping-off point for the 2006 NHL playoffs, and there is just no getting around it, figuratively and often literally, is Jaromir Jagr's booty. His derriere is large enough to cause a lunar eclipse, J. Lo-esque in its amplitude and wondrously utilitarian. When he is parked at the right half boards on the power play, Jagr can turn his formidable backside--"You can hang a license plate off it," New York Rangers coach Tom Renney marvels--and protect the puck for five, 15 or however many seconds he chooses until he spots a vacant passing lane or identifies a moment when he can easily wheel to the net. His rhythm. His whim. The game and, to some extent, the playoffs proceed at the discretion of a 6'3", 245-pound right wing with impossibly thick haunches, a player who is the NHL's top scorer since 1990 and whom New Jersey Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur calls the best he has ever faced.
The only thing grander than Jagr's first-team rump, of course, is his moodiness.
In the cartoon world of the NHL's biggest kid, there are two tiny Jagrs, one perched on each shoulder. There is glum Jagr and there is happy Jagr, and at any moment it is readily apparent which muse has his boss's ear. On the proscenium of the ice, his game faces are contrasting masks. Comedy or tragedy? Engaged or ambivalent? Playful or brooding? If his eyes are the windows to his soul, his stats and his team's standings are an MRI of his brain. A pouting Jagr can suck the oxygen out of an organization. Many former Washington teammates still have not forgiven him for, in their eyes, mailing it in during the 2 1/2 seasons (ending in January 2004) of his tenure with the struggling Capitals. But when he piles up points on teams that have bona fide Stanley Cup hopes, as he did early in his career as a Pittsburgh Penguin, he can be a delight.
There is no doubt which Jagr is storming into the playoffs, leading the first Rangers team to qualify for the postseason since 1997. He had set team records with 54 goals and 122 points through Sunday, putting him on the cusp of his sixth NHL scoring title, which would tie him with his mentor Mario Lemieux and Gordie Howe for the second most in league history, behind Wayne Gretzky. His first most valuable player award since 1999 surely will follow. Jagr's ability to carry a franchise that squandered hundreds of millions on execrable teams is even more important than the numbers, because the Rangers are a bellwether. As the NHL strains to escape niche status, the league gets a conspicuous boost when the Rangers are relevant. (The last time the league briefly claimed a portion of the major sports marketplace was, not accidentally, when New York won the Cup in '94.) The Blueshirts drive the product, and Jagr drives the Blueshirts.
This is happy Jagr. Liberated by the league's crackdown on obstruction, he has prospered in his first full season on Broadway, where he is ensconced among the six fellow Czechs brought in by Rangers general manager Glen Sather and is lauded by a coach who is unperturbed when his resident artiste opts to color outside the lines.
Or to put it another way, the Rangers put a winning smile on Jagr's face by planting a huge wet one on his you-know-what.
"For four years he's been an underachieving superstar with all sorts of issues, and he goes someplace where they show him the love, and he's happy and he decides to play hard," says Mike Milbury, general manager of the rival New York Islanders. "He's had a marvelous, spectacular year. He's one of the greatest players ever. Remarkable story of the turnaround of a franchise, which is clearly good for the league. But forgive me my little reservations on this thing because I have colleagues in this business [G.M.'s George McPhee in Washington and Craig Patrick in Pittsburgh] who could have looked a lot better or slept a lot better at night if their star player had shown up for work on time and worked for 60 minutes, which he didn't because he wasn't feeling the love. I mean, grow up. Come to the rink and have a professional attitude."
Milbury's cynical view of the reinvigorated Jagr is hardly unique. Just irrelevant. When New York acquired Jagr midway through the 2003-04 season at a deep discount (the Capitals pay, and will continue to pay, about $2.5 million of his league-high $8.36 million annual salary through 2009), Sather believed he could find a way to turn him into something more than the barely point-per-game Incredible Sulk of Washington, a diva whom former Caps coach Bruce Cassidy labeled "a coach killer." For almost a decade the Rangers had been bringing in big-name players in the autumns of their careers-- Gretzky, Mark Messier (the sequel), Eric Lindros, Theo Fleury and Pavel Bure--only to send the team into further disarray. Jagr easily could have been the latest link in this chain of dysfunction.
But the Rangers realized that Jagr was a diamond that needed the proper setting. "We met this summer to discuss how to get him back to being the best player in the world," says assistant G.M. Don Maloney. "We decided you do that by figuring out which players best complement him. Glen said it wasn't easy because in Edmonton [where Sather coached and was G.M.] there were players who couldn't play with Gretzky because they were intimidated. They'd get him the puck when they shouldn't have."
The Rangers began building around Jagr while never straying far from his personal circle. Within a 48-hour period last August, they grabbed three free agents: leftwingers Martin Straka, who was a teammate of Jagr's with the Penguins, and Martin Rucinsky, who has known Jagr since age eight, as well as Czech defenseman Marek Malik. Later they landed free agents Michael Nylander, a slick center with whom Jagr had a rapport in Washington, and defenseman Michal Rozsival. Midway through the season New York traded for winger Petr Sykora. Other than Nylander, all are Czechs. With the addition of surprising 30-goal rookie Petr Prucha, who boards with Jagr in Jagr's Manhattan home, the Rangers fashioned a Prague on the Hudson.