Jagr has made his choice
Jagr has made his choice, so what about Sakic and Sundin? In the frantic opening days of the free-agency period, Hamlet, the noted procrastinator, would have been tempted to tell Jaromir Jagr, Joe Sakic and Mats Sundin, with varying degrees of vehemence:
Guys, make up your minds, already!
The Rangers gave up on waiting for Jagr.
New York’s signings of Markus Naslund, Wade Redden and Michal Rozsival, plus the franchise’s other moves, meant the Czech superstar’s days with the Rangers were likely over. At that point, barring changes of heart, imaginative working under the cap and perhaps a Jagr willingness to take anything the Rangers could give him (which wasn’t going to be much), he was headed elsewhere.
The Rangers and Jagr’s camp couldn’t, and didn’t try, to bridge the gap between the $6 million, one-year deal New York offered and the two-year deal, for as much as $15 million, Jagr had been looking for.
Jagr’s contract would have been extended for the 2008-09 season, at $8.35 million, if he had racked up 84 points last season, but his team-leading total was only 71.
The subsequent news that Jagr signed on with Avangard Omsk isn’t a surprise, given Rangers general manager Glen Sather’s broad hints Thursday that he believed that was what Jagr would do. Now, Jagr returns to the city where he played 32 games during the 2004-05 lockout. After Marian Hossa refused new Oilers owner Daryl Katz’s offer that would have gotten Brian Burke steamed, Edmonton also was among the bona fide NHL possibilities for Jagr. Now that’s moot, too.
This is not saying good riddance, but acknowledging another reality under the cap system. Jagr’s agonized ambivalence about remaining in the NHL, given that financially aggressive Russian League teams’ offers can compete or even outstrip those coming from North American franchises, made him a bad risk, especially for anything beyond one year.
Jagr is 36 and getting into that territory, especially in the cap system, where multiyear deals are risky — even for players whose competitive fires are relentless, their skills largely undiminished and their commitment to remain in the NHL for the remainder of their playing days unquestioned. There were question marks on all of those fronts for Jagr.
Jagr’s preference to wind down while playing for his father’s Czech team in Kladno, most likely when a new arena opens in two years, was an issue as well. So at this point, one option is the two-year stop in Omsk and then a closing stint with Kladno. In a sense, that would be an admirable farewell tour, given he seems to hold issues of honor in his dealings with Omsk officials and his father. Maybe all of this shouldn’t be surprising given his track record of moodiness, but he still is only two years removed from a 54-goal, 123-point season.
The problem was, even if he decided to return to the NHL for another couple of seasons, shouldn’t his new team — whether it be Edmonton, Pittsburgh or anyone else — wonder if it’s not just a case of a career in twilight, but of a guy always looking at his watch?
Perhaps the same things could be said about Sundin and Sakic, but the scenarios are more simple: Do they play or do they retire?
As long as it doesn’t get into Teemu Selanne territory — and the example is Selanne and not Scott Niedermayer because Selanne was an unrestricted free agent and Niedermayer was under contract as both sat out the early part of last season — it’s understandable. If the Canucks’ $20 million package for two seasons couldn’t sway Sundin into reaching for the pen and plotting his training regimen leading up to camp, that indicates ambivalence. In the wake of all that, shouldn’t a team at least be a bit leery about trying to sign him to anything but a one-year deal? If he announces that, yes, he’s playing, and says all the right things about the period of reflection convincing him that’s what he wants to do, isn’t it reasonable to wonder whether that renewed passion could die out fast?
Meanwhile, the Avalanche are in a holding pattern, retaining cap room and avoiding the temptation to pester or pressure Sakic, perhaps even hoping Packers quarterback Brett Favre’s post-retirement-announcement “itchiness” will catch the longtime captain’s attention and nudge Sakic toward the decision to return for a 20th NHL season. Sakic’s 39th birthday — his first 39th birthday — is Monday.
And he’s realistic — perhaps more realistic and prone to maintain high standards for his play than others are.
Part of this involves Sakic’s insistence on one-year deals and year-to-year self-assessment at this stage of his career. If he decides to return to the Avalanche for next season, it would be under his third consecutive one-year deal after he played for $5.75 million and $6.75 million, respectively, the past two seasons.
In theory, his agent, Don Baizley, can listen or even court offers from other teams, but bringing that up almost seems silly and a cover-all-the-possibilities exercise.
Unless the Avalanche suddenly use up their considerable remaining cap space, or unless Sakic is discouraged rather than flattered by Colorado’s inertia in the early days of free agency, it’s safe to assume that if Sakic doesn’t play for Colorado next season, he won’t be playing for anyone.
But after a trip to Europe with his family — on an itinerary that included attending the wedding of teammate Marek Svatos and a visit to his parents’ homeland of Croatia — Sakic is back in North America, without making his decision, or at least publicly revealing it.
When defenseman Adam Foote’s re-signing (to a slightly risky two-year deal) was announced Monday, Sakic contacted him, both congratulating and teasing him. But Foote, who turns 37 next week, said he didn’t try to pin down Sakic about which one of them would be Colorado’s oldest player this season.
The fact Sakic made the call is probably a positive sign for the Avalanche, and management hasn’t tried to be financially aggressive enough in the free-agent market to leave Sakic no choice but to take a significant pay cut from last season to return. If GM Francois Giguere leaves significant cap room open under any circumstance, that won’t upset franchise owner Stan Kroenke, who is faced with having to write a hefty luxury-tax check to the NBA because his high-payroll and low-achieving Nuggets are over that league’s cap.
The safest bet remains that Sakic, who missed 38 games with a hernia problem last season, returns for another campaign. But that won’t be announced until he’s 100 percent certain it’s what he wants to do.
So who’s going to make up his mind first?
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of the just-released “‘77″ and “Third Down and a War to Go.”