It's not the question one really wants to ask. Not during the playoffs, not the day after they're over. Yet there it hangs, a sharpened pendulum swinging ever lower, destined to cut the team irrevocably.
Has Jaromir Jagr pulled on the sweater of the Pittsburgh Penguins for the final time?
With the wild ride that was this season now finally finished, this question is destined to dominate team headlines for the foreseeable future. Why not, it's already been unavoidable for weeks.
Yet, in reality, it is not the answer to this question which speaks to the Penguins' state of affairs, or even fully encompasses the season now past. Rather this question's very existence is a testament to a team already preparing for tomorrow even before the sun finished setting on today.
Twelve months ago the idea of trading Jagr was unimaginable. It was a 'what if' parlour game volleyed about in chat rooms mostly to kill time. It was precisely this because Mario said so.
Only now the phrases aren't so absolute. Hardly three months ago the words became almost imperceptibly hopeful, speculative. Then, about two weeks ago, they turned noticeably tempered, measured; and today they've become solemn, life-will-go-on reassurances composing a slowly closing window, one that leaves General Manager Craig Patrick just enough room to effectively do his job.
When Jaromir Jagr showed up in Pittsburgh over a decade ago, he scored 57 points in the regular season, and chipped in another thirteen along the way to the Penguins' first Stanley Cup. The world of hockey gawked in awe at the way a team with Mario Lemieux could get so lucky in such short order. With his size, strength, and skill, here was a prodigy who would be given his on-the-job training by one of the game's greatest performers and whose name was already etched on the Cup at age nineteen.
Over twelve hundred total points later, the question no longer revolves around how great Jagr is, but how much that greatness will cost what is now literally Mario's franchise, and how much it will affect the future of hockey in Pittsburgh.
Don't be mistaken, it makes no financial sense to attempt to keep a player who eats up one third of the Penguins entire team salary. In fact, all moneys aside, in a blue collar town such as Pittsburgh, it could be effectively argued that it is more important to keep a player with the heart and work-ethic of a Marty Straka than it is to break the bank for a player who has admitted 'conserving energy' while actually on the ice.
However, while the debate can rage about individual worth and the particulars surrounding every trade rumor, what is masterful here is the way in which the entire sideshow has been orchestrated. The team has foreshadowed the events to come for nearly six months. First in broad strokes, eventually filling in detail.
Whether intentional or not, all the reports about Jagr's future have unfailingly, perfectly, served one single purpose. In deftly winning a public relations war before it began, the team—in everything said and everything left unsaid—has now quietly prepared the city of Pittsburgh for the loss of a Penguin cornerstone, one baby step at a time.
Jagr's tenure in Pittsburgh can now come to an end mostly because what was once a relationship of teacher to pupil has transformed into the thinly veiled desire of the student to stake his own claim, and the emperor not yet ready to abdicate his throne. While assuredly more offensively skilled than most of the league, the Penguins' top line and top tier talent is far too similar in style; with preening poodles outnumbering blood-thirsty Rottweilers from tip to top.
Yes, moving Jagr will assuredly close off a good deal of real estate on the Igloo ice for Mario Lemieux, it may even close some off figurative real estate to him around town. But, at the bottom of it all, whether one believes Mario benevolently returned for the team, the sport, and the city, or malevolently came back for the money; it is in the inherent interest of either side of that coin to improve the organization, leaving the team both better off and more valuable than when Mario acquired it.
Whether this will be done with Lemieux centering Jaromir Jagr and the likes of Toby Petersen, Milan Kraft, and Tom Kostopoulos or with Mario alongside Kovalev, Straka, and a fistful of Islanders to be named later has mostly been rendered immaterial. With each added question surrounding this issue, the team, and by extension their owner, are subtly demonstrating that the actions they take are done so for the sake of today, tomorrow, and for the future viability of the Penguins in the city of Pittsburgh. This is the sign of a focused organization, something every Penguin fan should ask for no matter the players on the ice or the faces in the front office.
The only solace a fan can find at the end of any season which fails to end buried beneath a shower of ticker-tape is that 'next year will be different.' Provided the Penguins have learned their lesson from this season—the lesson that involves too much like talent and a complete lack of balance—the organization will be able to take an honest, unflinching look at the present roster and make decisions based not on sentiment, but on what's best for the continued success of the franchise. This, at least in a perfect world, is the best any fan can ever hope for on any day, let alone the day after the season has ended.
Brother Karsh appears weekly at LGP.com and will continue to do just that for the first few weeks of the off-season. Then he plans to get a life over the summer, commenting when relevant or as ego dictates.