The Washington Capitals made the most significant move in their 27-year history yesterday, acquiring Jaromir Jagr, considered to be the best hockey player in the world.
Disappointed in being shut out in the free-agent market last month, the Caps rebounded in stunning fashion, acquiring the NHL's leading scorer from the Pittsburgh Penguins for three young prospects.
"We've just done a big thing, but we're not done," Capitals majority owner Ted Leonsis said. "We're hoping to do more."
With one bold move, the Capitals have taken themselves out of the also-ran category and stepped boldly into the national spotlight and into the realm of Stanley Cup contender.
"In most people's minds, Jagr is the most talented player in the game right now," Los Angeles Kings coach Andy Murray said. "He's extremely talented ... and the bottom line is they've added him to their lineup, made their team better, and not had to take anyone out of their lineup from last season. That strengthens them tremendously."
Murray would not compare the Jagr trade with the one that brought Wayne Gretzky from Edmonton to Los Angeles for the 1988-89 season.
"There's only one Gretzky," Murray said. "But I am happy that Jagr went to Washington and not to some other team out here in the West."
Last spring, the Capitals demonstrated their resolve and defensive skills, but as Leonsis said, they couldn't score goals.
"We went looking for a center who could score," he said. "We didn't win in the free-agent market, but in trying to play, we established ourselves as a buyer. Pittsburgh called us."
And yesterday, the Caps were able to finalize the deal.
"It lights up the team," Leonsis said. "And it begins to answer two questions. Can we get great players to come to Washington? And two, will it knock the chip off people's shoulders and make them realize we're as good and as exciting as any other team out there?
"I'm not going to overbuild expectations," Leonsis said. "But the opportunity was here, and we got a once-in-a-generation player. I didn't feel any extra pressure to get this done. The pressure here is all self-imposed pressure to compete for the Cup. We've got a ways to go, but this is a big step."
Caps president Dick Patrick said the sales staff let out a cheer when it heard the trade news and said "the phone [ticket sales] lines lit up and have been busy ever since."
The Capitals now have the NHL's top two goal scorers from the past seven seasons in Jagr and Peter Bondra. Since 1994-95, Jagr has 314 goals, while Bondra has scored 281. Coincidentally, the two stars made their NHL debuts in the same game, Oct. 5, 1990.
"I talked to Jaromir about the trade and he was excited," said general manager George McPhee, who reached Jagr in the Czech Republic. "I told him how fantastic our ownership is, how committed to winning we are, and that we're going to have a lot of fun. Then he told me several things he wanted me to tell Mr. Leonsis."
Chief among them is that Jagr said he has something to prove.
"He told me he wants to prove he is the best player in the world," said McPhee, sounding a little mystified. "I thought he already was."
The price for the 6-foot-2, 234 pound star was surprisingly modest for the Capitals. Washington sent prospects Kris Beech, Michal Sivek, Ross Lupaschuk and "future considerations" to the Penguins. Leonsis credited McPhee with having a "great draft" three years ago as the key to putting Washington in position to have the right young players to interest Pittsburgh.
"We can now put out two lines with a 50-goal scorer on each one," Leonsis said. "And we didn't have to strip-mine our youth to do it."
In the process, Washington also acquired defenseman Frantisek Kucera.
Kucera, 33, is 6-2, 205 pounds and an eight-year veteran. He is the brother of the Caps' European scout Vojtech Kucera. McPhee described him as "serviceable," a bonus in an already stupendous deal.
Jagr, 29, had hoped to be traded during last month's NHL draft but had to wait for this deal to end his 11-year association with Pittsburgh - the only previous team in his NHL career.
He is one of only five players to lead the NHL in scoring five times, including each of the past four years. He has been a first-team all-star six times and won the Hart Trophy as the league MVP in 1999.
Last season, he led the league with 121 points and had 69 assists to share the league lead with Caps center Adam Oates.
Oates was the first long-established star the Caps traded for in a decade. His current situation, however, remains cloudy. On Monday, Oates told The Washington Times that his dispute with the club is primarily over a new contract, not over his ice time.
Last month, the club exercised its option on Oates' existing contract that guarantees him $3 million. Last season, he led the club in scoring with 13 goals and 69 assists.
Yesterday, McPhee said he was "not sure" how things would develop with Oates.
"I'm not sure of his future," McPhee said. "We'll address it in a couple weeks."
On the subject of Jagr's contract, which has two years left at $20.7 million, McPhee said if Jagr's agent, Mike Barnett, wanted to discuss an extension, the Capitals would be willing to talk.
Jagr helped the Penguins to Stanley Cup-winning seasons in 1991 and 1992. This season, his 52 goals propelled them into the playoffs, where they beat the Capitals in the first round before advancing to the Eastern Conference finals.
In the playoffs, Jagr was only the 12th leading scorer with two goals and 10 assists, but McPhee said he was not concerned.
"He was banged up and it's not an issue with me," McPhee said. "We all know what kind of player he is."