Jagr pointing way to greatness

Caps counting on star to provide leadership, scoring for Cup drive

October 03, 2001|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Work your way around the Washington Capitals' locker room. Ask the men who will be working with right wing Jaromir Jagr what three things the all-world player brings to the team as the NHL season begins today. See how quickly the number three multiplies to six and then nine and then ...

Center Adam Oates points to the addition of a man who can provide 121 points, to the leadership that comes with a man who has won two Stanley Cups, and to the hope generated by the addition of the best hockey player in the world.

Goalie Olie Kolzig, who had just come off the ice with Jagr after a one-on-one challenge, said having the 29-year-old right wing on the team means better game preparation.

"He's unbelievable," Kolzig said. "He's been here a month, and I still can't get a read on what he's going to do. We have a handful of guys with hard shots and a group of guys with skillful maneuvers. But this guy has everything, and playing with him every day in practice and facing him every day in practice is just going to make us all better.

"That's what superstars do."

The Capitals' enthusiasm has been high since Jagr was acquired July 11 from the Pittsburgh Penguins, and as the team makes plans for its season opener Saturday against the New Jersey Devils, it shows no signs of abating. Jagr's acquisition is the most significant move the Capitals have made in their 27-year history, and it has created new hope in a franchise that has always had to outwork more talented opponents.

The Capitals seem to rejoice every day as they count the ways Jagr can make a difference. Defenseman Sergei Gonchar said Jagr is going to bring more fans to MCI Center. Goalie Craig Billington said he'll increase the Caps' puck possession minutes. And wing/center Trevor Linden said Jagr's ability to turn a one-on-one situation into an advantage for himself is unique.

They go on and on, until you get to veteran defenseman Calle Johansson, where it all comes to a sudden halt.

"You can't say just three things," he said. "He's a complete player. I've seen him play against us for 10 years. He's just the complete package."

Sitting at his locker a few minutes later, Jagr grins. It feels good to be in this locker room, to be in the midst of a new start, after 11 years with the Penguins, who lost their affection for him last season.

And, it feels good to be so appreciated by his new teammates.

"But if I was complete, I'd quit," Jagr said. "There would be no reason to play. I have much to do. Around the league, the guys are getting better. The young guys, getting bigger and stronger. You have to keep improving to compete."

It is, perhaps, his dedication to work that has most impressed the Capitals. General manager George McPhee said Jagr puts in hours of work after every game and every practice.

"And he likes his privacy when he's working," McPhee said. "He's not giving away any secrets."

Fellow All-Star and right wing Peter Bondra said he didn't expect such dedication.

"The work ethic," said Bondra, whose locker is next to Jagr's. "I see him after preseason games and he isn't leaving; he's going to the gym. He's already thinking about the next day, the next game."

And Linden has noticed Jagr is always one of the last players off the ice after practice.

"It's been fun to watch him practice," Linden said. "I think he's a real student of the game. He analyzes and works on it. Just think about it. He sees the toughest players every night. They key on him. They double-team him. Before every game, the opposing team talks about how to defend him, and he still leads the league in scoring. You have to be smart to do that."

One question still being resolved is whom Jagr's regular linemates will be. He laughed and said, "Maybe we'll have a lottery."

Coach Ron Wilson nodded and said Jagr's line is a work in progress.

At the start of the season, he is expected to line up with center Andrei Nikolishin and left wing Dainius Zubrus. They've played well together in several preseason games and will get a chance Saturday to see if they will continue to click.

"We're trying to get used to each other," Zubrus said. "The way he plays, every time on the ice it is different, because he likes to create his own space and create opportunities. We try to communicate a lot. I know he likes the puck, and I try to get it to him because he can beat anyone one-on-one and he can find the open player when he is covered by two men."

Jagr is also expected to add more punch to the team's power play, which was already fourth best in the league last season. On one successful extra-man opportunity against the Carolina Hurricanes last weekend, Jagr took a fine pass from Oates and scored from the far post - a spot often heretofore neglected in the Caps' attack.

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