Sunday, July 06, 2008


Moving On Without Magic Mullet

by Czechmate

Believe it or not, the Toronto Maple Leafs aren’t the only team who likely will be without the services of their future Hall-Of-Famer captain, regardless how many headlines the Mats Sundin saga generates. In fact, I’d put forth the notion that Sundin isn’t the biggest name out there who may retire from the NHL or switch teams. No, I’m not talking about Joe Sakic, who appears to be deciding between another year in Colorado or packing it in. I’m talking of The Magic Mullet. I’m talking about Jaromir Jagr.

There has been a bit of coverage of Jagr’s decision to take his show to Russia for what will apparently be a contract that would again make him the highest paid hockey player in the world. Much of the commentary has been derisive, and has painted Jaromir as a guy who is in it for himself and a paycheque, or that he’s over the hill and wouldn’t get the same money in the NHL. I am not of that belief, other than the dollars he would command in the NHL.

JJ has been public about his intention to return to his hometown of Kladno in the Czech Republic, likely in three years. His father is building a new arena for the local Extraliga team there, and wants his son to be on the team for that occasion. Hardly anything wrong with that, in my books.

"I don't think I would sign longer than two years, just because of my dad," Jagr said in May. "He asked me to come home in two years. He's helping to build a new arena there and he wants me to be there."

However, as a Rangers’ fan, I am disappointed. Sure, Jagr’s 71 points last season represented a big drop-off in production, but then he came out and tallied 15 points in 10 playoff games. He even admitted to coasting from time to time during the regular season to leave something in the tank for the post-season. The Rangers looked like a contender, and to me, that’s a smart strategy for a 36-year old player. He knows his body better than anyone, so if he felt he needed to take it easier than usual, who are we to criticize? He still led his team in scoring...

Now, it’s time to turn the page on the Jagr era. El Capitan is gone. A new era begins.

First question: Can Markus Naslund replace Jagr’s offence?

In short, I don’t think so. Jagr is a different kind of player, and fit well with his linemates in New York. Despite what his detractors might say about him, Jagr was a powerful winger who could use his body to shield the puck from defenders better than anyone in the game. At times, he looked like an older brother playing keep-away with his younger siblings. Naslund doesn’t have that ability... Naslund, from what I’ve seen (and I’m sure Jes will confirm or correct this), is a faster skater than JJ, and has a quicker release on his shot, but he doesn’t fare well in high traffic. He does have offensive talent, but his production has been in steady decline for 5 seasons now (104pts, 84, 79, 60, 55). I’m thinking instead of calling Nazzy a replacement for the Magic Mullet, we should call him a replacement for Brendan Shanahan – an aging sniper who might be best suited to the second line and powerplay.

Second Question: If not Naslund, who will step up to fill Jagr’s role?

Well, the Rangers made a trade that almost passed under the radar. They sent stalwart defenceman Fedor Tyutin and trade deadline pickup Christian Backman, a puck-mover who hasn’t had much success at the NHL level, to the Columbus Blue Jackets. In return, they picked up Nikolai Zherdev and Dan Fritsche. Fritsche seems to have peaked as a third line player with some offensive upside, but one never knows how he’ll react under a different system than the boring defensive style played under Ken Hitchcock in Columbus. I’ve got him pencilled in on a line with Nigel Dawes and Ryan Callahan to start the season, but who knows at this point...

As for Zherdev, it’s an all or nothing scenario. Widely viewed as “enigmatic”, Zherdev really impressed me at the 2003-04 Young Stars game, where he put on a dipsy-doodling clinic. I view him as one of the absolute best one-on-one players in the game, but he has motivational problems. Amidst widely reported unhappiness due to his inability to really let it all out under Hitchcock’s reign, Zherdev had his best season to date last year with 26 goals (27 is his best) and 64 points in 82 games.

The 2006-07 NHL season was a low point for Zherdev, as he struggled to score consistently and frequently clashed with the Jackets coaching staff, leading to repeated rumors that he might be traded before the 2007-08 NHL season began. In response, new Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson and coach Ken Hitchcock met Zherdev in a "clean-the-slate" meeting. Zherdev has since rediscovered success on the ice.

But it was clear that he’d bolt as soon as he reached UFA status, so they dealt him to the Rangers. I truly believe he replaces Marty Straka’s speed, although he is sometimes a defensive liability, which you couldn’t say about Straka. I see his offensive ceiling as somewhere around 85 points for next season, with 35 goals. Lots to ask for a guy who will first need to adjust to a new system, but I think he’s eager to play with Scotty Gomez as his set-up man. Also to consider are the Rangers’ top prospects – Anisimov, Cherepanov, Grachev. All Russian. Maybe we’re moving from Czech to Russian in the near future?

Last Question: Who will be the captain?

Jagr was a good captain. His coach and teammates will tell you that over the mindless humdrum of the media, who painted him as selfish and unmotivated to lead. Complete nonsense. Replacing his presence will not be easy, but the Rangers started on that last season by picking up Chris Drury. Some will say Gomez should be captain, but I’m sticking with Drury because of what I saw from him in Buffalo. Assuming Shanahan doesn’t return, Drury will be the new leader for the Blueshirts, or perhaps a rotating captaincy, although that doesn’t seem like Tom Renney’s style...

That’s it for now! Until next time:

Na Zdravi!

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Naslund, from what I’ve seen (and I’m sure Jes will confirm or correct this), is a faster skater than JJ, and has a quicker release on his shot, but he doesn’t fare well in high traffic.

That's pretty much spot on. Bertuzzi, before 'the incident', really cleared a lot of space for Naslund.

Naslund doesn't seem to use his wristy-laser anymore, and was utilizing a very ineffective slapshot way too often the past two seasons.

Naslund's speed has also declined, but we're not sure if that was because he was uninspired, injured, and/or just getting old. Naslund was never a speed demon, and Jagr, as slow as he can look, eats up a lot of ice with his powerful strides.

Naslund is a good 2nd line option, but that is about it.
Yeah, I guess I should have been more clear in my analytical view of Jagr's speed. I mean "breakaway" speed. Jagr definitely doesn't use that as a primary weapon in his "arse"-nal (pun on him using his big butt along the boards... ouch... and all this on my first day??)

I'm leery of Naslund, but hope he can regain his former offensive levels. Sadly, he's almost as old as Jagr, so I don't really see him being a long-term fit for us... We should have asked for a conditional Sedin in the offer somehow, even though it was a UFA pickup... Gillis seems like he might agree to it...
I saw Zherdev play for Khimik the season before last in an incredible game, I think is was his last before heading back to the Blue Jackets.

Anyway, he really impressed me then.

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