Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Redemption Song: One Man's Case for Signing Jagr

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery
None but ourselves can free our minds.
Won't you help to sing
These songs of freedom?

Bob Marley - "Redemption Song"

Now that Marian Hossa has moved on to 8 Mile via a mystifying one-year contract, it is time to think about who will play on Sir Sidney's right wing in 2008-09.

Look no further than No. 68.

No matter what your feelings are for perhaps the most polarizing figure in Penguins history, you have to admit that when you look at the forwards still available to sign out of free agency, ol' Jaromir looks better and better by the minute.

Sure, former Penguin Markus Naslund returning to the Igloo would also be a good story and perhaps as good a fit with the Black and Vegas Gold, but the idea of Mr. Dying Alive being reborn in Pittsburgh is simply too tantalizing to be topped.

I may be biased because he was my first favorite player, but I believe Jagr has gotten unfairly treated by the majority of Pens fans since his unsavory departure (via trade to Washington) in the summer of 2001. If you remember, JJ was forced to cede the 'Burgh spotlight when Mario made his transcendent return to the NHL in December 2000. Even though that particular edition of the flightless fowl made it all the way to the East Final (losing to the machine-like Devils), Jagr expressed his desire to be dealt upon the season's conclusion.

Ostensibly, Jaromir wanted the Penguins to at least get something in return for him because the cash-strapped franchise could not afford to pay his enormous contract for its duration. Despite what the Czech superstar said on the public record, something was bothering him in the third act of his career in Pittsburgh, something that appeared to rob Jagr of his joy on and off the ice.

So he was gone, as then-GM Craig Patrick traded JJ to the Capitals for Kris Beech, Michel Sivek and Ross Lupaschuk, none of whom would contribute anything meaningful to those miserable Penguins teams of the early half of this decade.

Every time Jagr has returned to Mellon Arena since his semi-self-induced breakaway, he has been mercilessly jeered by a vocal majority of Penguins backers whenever he touched the puck. Quite an ironic turnaround for a man who finds his likeness on the Penguins Ring of Honor high above the Igloo ice surface.

The people who boo Jaromir have always been misguided. Here was a man who played key roles on the Cup-winning teams of the early 90s, grew into the most feared talent in the League this side of Lemieux the Magnificent, then took over as team leader and captain as Mario slipped into premature retirement.

While Lemieux was working his renowned magic in the boardroom to bail the Pens out of bankruptcy, his old sidekick was doing all he could to ensure that the fanbase still had something to cheer about in midst of financial morbidity.

Perhaps the best example of Jagr's value to the oft-troubled franchise occurred in the spring of 1999, as the No. 8-seeded Penguins struck down New Jersey in the first round of the playoffs. Playing on a severely-torn groin, JJ dramatically pushed his squad to victories in Games Six and Seven.

Watch for yourselves...

...and then the clicher.

Who knows how the free agency dance will play out as we're headed for Day Three of the frenzy? If Jagr decides to forego playing in Russia, at least for now, the Penguins have as good a chance as any team of landing the very good, but no longer great Jagr. With Crosby and Malkin locked up long term, the Pens don't need greatness on the wing, just a sure finishing touch. The money earmarked for Hossa can now be spread out among a couple veteran forwards, and Jagr could be one of them.

Are you ready to forgive? Let Bob serenade you, and then see if you're willing to let 68 back into your life.

Bucco talk tomorrow. Until then, hit 'em straight!

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