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Puck Talk with Popchock: Reality Czech

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Jaromir Jagr

Jaromir Jagr left the Penguins as the franchise’s No. 2 scorer all-time, and left the NHL as the league’s No. 9 scorer all-time. (Photo credit: Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

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By Matt Popchock

Jaromir Jagr has reportedly spoken with ex-mentor and boss Mario Lemieux about a possible return to his NHL roots, a meeting that conventional wisdom says went well.

As far as my own peer group goes, I’m clearly in the minority when I say I hope that conversation began with Yags filling Mario in on where to find the best wine in Bratislava, and ended with Mario saying, “Okay, see you at the ’92 reunion.”

The future of the prodigal son has re-entered our own conversation this week, a conversation I can’t resist joining. The reasons for bringing back the born-again Christian–er, Penguin–have been compelling and well documented, but rather than follow in the footsteps of those who have clamored for a comeback, I intend to go my own way…just like Jagr did in his later years with the Pens.

A very intriguing interview 93-7 Penguins insider and former teammate Peter Taglianetti did with “Seibel, Starkey, & Miller” (weekdays 2-6 P.M. on 93-7 The Fan) this week painted the embattled Jagr as a frustrated scapegoat for the utter incompetence of former owner Howard Baldwin. Tags threw Baldwin completely under the bus for his financial handling of the franchise in the 1990’s.

I concur that Baldwin ruined the Penguins more than anyone could imagine. On at least one occasion they nearly ceased to exist as a result of his actions. But that does not absolve Jagr, who served as team captain in his final three seasons in Pittsburgh, from taking responsibility for his behavior as a team leader. He was not above showcasing his deteriorating attitude just as he would his world-class skill set for teammates, coaches, and media alike.

If you think stories of that attitude have been exaggerated, look up former Penguin defenseman Marc Bergevin some time. He gave Jagr the business for carrying on a cell phone conversation with God-knows-who between periods of Game 7 of the 2001 Eastern Conference Semifinals in Buffalo.

Some have speculated Jagr was talking to his girlfriend at the time, while others have said he was talking to his agent. Others have even said he was talking to his bookie, which, if true, would help explain prevalent rumors of a gambling problem.

I’m not denying Jagr has changed since then, nor do I deny there were other factors at play in his exile from Pittsburgh. I respect him for clearly wanting to mend fences with his Penguin family, including the disgruntled masses who later booed him at the Civic Arena like they would Barry Bonds at PNC Park. But I find it rather coincidental his personal issues reached a boiling point after Lemieux returned to the ice in 2000.

This is Sid’s team, and to a lesser extent, Geno’s team, not Jaromir’s team. How do we know the latter would be willing to accept a secondary role with the Penguins without causing a similar rift in their locker room?

With all due respect to former Penguins GM Craig Patrick, one of the most brilliant executives in NHL history, the country club atmosphere that permeated the old Igloo under his watch is long gone. If and when Jagr does suit up for the Pens again, the presumably changed man will be returning to a changed franchise.

But the bigger issue here is not what Jagr is willing to give. The bigger issue, rather, is what he can give, and what the Penguins, in the meantime, can get in lieu of the 39-year-old future Hall-of-Famer.

Jagr’s recent performance for the bronze medal-winning Czech Republic squad in the IIHF World Championships, during which he registered five goals and nine points in nine games, was impressive. He has also put up respectable numbers throughout his three campaigns in the Kontinental Hockey League, and he didn’t exactly fade into oblivion prior to leaving the Rangers in 2008, but translating his present success back into the much grittier NHL is still a tall order.

Yes, he can still play the game. I, who, like many, once shunned him and took his infamous “dying alive” quote out of context, am the first to admit it. But how well can he still play the North American game?

Two other NHL veterans who were pushing 40, Gary Roberts and Bill Guerin, were brought in to help the Penguins on separate occasions in years past. Roberts gave the Pens toughness, and his inspirational play helped carry them to a playoff berth, and later, a Stanley Cup Final berth. Guerin gave the Pens similar toughness and enhanced productivity, which helped them claim the Cup.

Their shelf lives, however, were short. Predictably, Roberts retired shortly after signing with Tampa Bay as a free agent after the 2008 Finals, and as Guerin played more and more like his age, he too retired not long after the Pens released him in the summer of 2010.

What ex-Jagr teammate and fellow Stanley Cup champion Mark Recchi did well into his forties is the exception, not the norm. If history is any guide, Jagr, even with his unique abilities, probably has just a couple good years left to give the Penguins what they’re looking for, and even that might be a charitable estimate.

Offensively it’s no secret the Penguins are too top-heavy for their own good. That weakness was exploited more than ever in this year’s playoffs. But signing an aging Jagr to try and fill that void seems like the easy way out, and this is not a franchise that won the Stanley Cup two years ago by taking the easy way out. It got there by making wise long-term investments, particularly through the draft, and by adding veteran role players who fit their mold and added to team chemistry without breaking the bank.

The Penguins don’t need another playmaker. They need a finisher. Jagr has averaged around a point per game in the KHL, but his goal total has dropped each year. This past season he managed 19 goals in 49 games playing amongst his fellow Europeans, many of whom might never see a single second of NHL ice time.

The other NHL team with the strongest interest in him seems to be the Detroit Red Wings. This may be an unpopular opinion, but although Jagr would not ask an exorbitant amount from either bidder, he might be a more logical fit in Detroit, which might give him a little more and give him the opportunity to play in a much more Euro-centric lineup that also has realistic championship aspirations.

According to multiple sources, including KDKA-TV’s Bob Pompeani, Jagr may ask for as much as $2.5 million to play here this approaching season. That’s not much for someone with his resume, especially considering the salary cap has gone up to $64 million, giving the Pens roughly $9 million of wiggle room for 2011-12. However, this team is not without pressing free agent concerns.

A versatile player like Tyler Kennedy, who scored more post-All Star Break goals than Steve Stamkos and Alex Ovechkin, and is a much younger forward with an obvious upside, is worth as much as what Jagr, at his age, would command. Use that money to bring TK back, and use whatever’s left to lock up Pascal Dupuis, a key role player who has meshed well with Crosby, and pursue scoring help via free agency. In addition, the Pens still have depth on defense that could always be offered up to bring in offensive help, just as they did Alex Goligoski for James Neal.

If the Penguins sign Jagr, the chances are good it will come at the expense of Kennedy and/or Dupuis, among others. I’m not saying Yags couldn’t contribute to a Cup run. I’d just hate to see a team that might simply be a healthy Sid and Geno from contending broken up with the assumption that the whole will be greater than the sum of the parts.

The positive memories of 68 should never be 86’d by Pittsburghers. Although I will never forget, I will forgive Jagr if a homecoming takes place, and I will privately root for him as an equal member of the Penguin family with the hope that he and Ray Shero prove me wrong this season.

Be happy if this potential feel-good story becomes a reality, but don’t lose sleep if it doesn’t. I’m just as comfortable seeing No. 68 in CONSOL Energy Center’s rafters as I am seeing it on its ice.

(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)

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