Jagr Braces For Return To Pittsburgh

29 Dec

VOORHEES, N.J. — The rivalry between the Flyers and Penguins was intense enough. Pittsburgh fans certainly didn’t need Jaromir Jagr to fuel the fire. This year, they expected the Czech to be skating with the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, or at least for the No. 68 to hang in the rafters at Consol Energy Center.

Instead Jagr chose to join the hated Flyers over the Penguins on July 1 when free agency opened. Fans felt betrayed since the organization extended an offer to Jagr and were long-rumored to be the top contender for the 39-year-old winger’s services. But Jagr feels betrayed himself. He says the Penguins were playing games of their own and now he looks like an enemy where his NHL career started.

Jagr didn’t take Pittsburgh’s offer and instead, shockingly joined the Flyers. He says that the offer from Pittsburgh was just made to appease the fans, that he never felt wanted.

“Exactly. They’re not gonna say it, but that’s the way it is,” said Jagr. “Whoever is smart, they’re gonna figure it out, but I don’t want to talk about it. It doesn’t matter to me. I’m just protecting myself. That’s all.

“They saw me play at the World Championships. There was not many GMs there, but the GM from Pittsburgh was there. He saw me play. If he was interested or whatever in the way I play, they would ask me. They would talk to me.”

When the free agency window opened this summer, Penguins general manager Ray Shero claimed that he had indeed been keeping a close eye on Jagr at the IIHF World Championship in Slovakia.

“We feel from the information we have and after seeing at World Championships, that he’s a guy who might be able to help us this coming season,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on June 28. “We feel he’s a guy who could help us this year, and retire as a Penguin.”

Jagr says that’s not so. At no point in the offseason did he think that he would actually be donning black and gold again in Pittsburgh.

“To be honest with you, not really. I didn’t think they wanted me,” said Jagr. “Truly, I don’t think the management, the coaches wanted me to be there. When you look back to the articles over there, what happened one month before I was a free agent — and I didn’t even talk to anybody.”

OK, let’s take a look.

“I don’t understand where all this came from,” GM Ray Shero told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in May. “Jagr is not a guy we’ve spoken about in a couple of years. We talked about him for a little bit after his time with the Rangers, but that’s about it.”

“They were not interested,” said Jagr. “All they were interested in was to bring me back for the [20th anniversary of the 1991 Penguins championship team] golf tournament.”

“We were able to get that invitation to him, and we’d like to acknowledge his involvement with the organization,” Shero told the Tribune-Review. “That’s really all there was to it.”

This season, Jagr is in orange and black. He’s scored 11 goals with 19 assists in 31 games with the Flyers and has seen great benefit from playing with Claude Giroux. A few months ago, some in Pittsburgh had visions of him playing with different young stars — Crosby and Malkin — and adding to his remarkable Pittsburgh totals. He had 439 goals and 640 assists in 806 games with the Penguins.

“I don’t think I’d be playing with them,” said Jagr. “I had a conversation with them. I talked to the GM. They said Crosby had players to play with and they didn’t think I’d be playing with him.

“When the GM tells you we have to sign [Tyler] Kennedy first and Kennedy is playing the third or fourth line … Just go and look for [the] GM a month before I was a free agent, and it’s going to tell you a lot. It’ll tell you if they wanted me or not.”

Many believe that Jagr was just out for money. His one-year deal with the Flyers is worth $3.3 million. It is believed to be more than what the Penguins offered in their one-year proposal that Shero eventually retracted.

“We made what we thought was a very fair contract offer to Jaromir on [June 28], based on his stated interest of returning to the Penguins,” Shero said in a statement. “We made our best offer from the start, given our salary cap structure, in an attempt to facilitate a deal. But now, after several days, with an extended time frame for making a decision, and additional teams getting involved, we have decided to move in a different direction. It was never our intention to get involved in a free agent bidding war, and we have to focus on our team.”

Jagr says that his return to the NHL was never about the coin.

“If this was about money, I would have stayed in Russia and got twice more than here … tax free,” said Jagr.

In fact, the Flyers weren’t even the highest offer in the NHL.

“You would be very surprised,” said Jagr. “There was a team that didn’t make the playoffs last year in a different conference and they just wanted to sign players because they had to get to the minimum [salary floor].”

Clearly, Jagr is still a little shaken by the whole experience and feels as though he was set up by the Pittsburgh front office. His intention, he says, is to bring this to light for the fans that feel wronged.

“People have to understand that this is the whole business,” said Jagr. “People are gonna say whatever they have to say to make the fans happy. When I got traded, I came to [then general manager] Craig Patrick and told him, ‘This team is in trouble.’ Not bankruptcy, but we didn’t have much money. I was making $10 million that year. There was the second line: [Robert] Lang, [Martin] Straka, [Alex] Kovalev. They were all free agents. We couldn’t sign them. Pittsburgh couldn’t sign them.

“I came to Craig Patrick. I told him, ‘You know what? I know it’s gonna make it easy for you and the Penguins organization if you trade me for that money. Sign all three players and the team’s gonna be better. If I were to stay there and those guys leave, we have no team.’ He drafted me. I felt like I was his kid or something. I think it would be tough for him to trade me if I didn’t come to him and say it. I didn’t want to get traded, but I just made it easy for the team to do it because I don’t think we would be good. I think we would be bad if I wouldn’t have been traded.”

If the potential of a Lang-less, Straka-less, Kovalev-less Penguins team was bad, his situation with the Penguins now just might be worse. Jagr has already been to New York and Washington this season and he’s heard a healthy contingent of boos in both Madison Square Garden and Verizon Center. He expects to hear many more boos Thursday night at Consol Energy Center.

“It’s gonna be a lot worse in Pittsburgh, no question about it,” he said when asked about his reception in New York last Friday. “If you want to hear boos, go to Pittsburgh.”

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