Washington Capitals Coach Bruce Cassidy said yesterday that he will significantly increase winger Jaromir Jagr's ice time after the all-star break, a change Jagr has been quietly craving.
Cassidy plans to increase Jagr's playing time from 21 minutes a game to 25 minutes or more following Sunday's All-Star Game. The coaching staff is working on altering the rotation of forward lines to create the increased ice time for Jagr, who is back in top form after a first-half slump.
"He has to play more," said Cassidy, who believes 27 minutes is the maximum a forward should play. "He's our marquee guy and at this time of year when [opposing defensemen] are tired and with Jags being such a strong guy with a big-game reputation, he needs to get more minutes. I recognize that."
Jagr's minutes are the most among the team's forwards and on par with other NHL stars, such as Markus Naslund, Mario Lemieux and Joe Thornton, but far less than what Jagr was accustomed to during his time in Pittsburgh.
"In Pittsburgh I played more like 30 minutes and most of the time I'm playing against the same defensemen because the other team is matching against me," Jagr said. "I'm 240 pounds and I think I'm in pretty good shape, and I think I'm stronger than most of the defensemen I play against. I know sooner or later they're going to get tired.
"It's like when you are running the ball in football. Early in the game it might not make too much of a difference -- you're going to get two or three yards. But later on the defense is going to get tired and break down and make mistakes. If I'm playing against the same guys all the time for 30 minutes I know he's going to make mistakes and then I can score on him."
Jagr, who has 19 points in his last 10 games, has not complained to the coaching staff about his playing time, although his body language sometimes reveals his frustration. During Tuesday night's 5-3 loss to St. Louis, Blues Coach Joel Quenneville rode his top line for repeated shifts late in the second period, quickly overcoming a two-goal deficit. Jagr, who believes he is best when given ample opportunity to get going early, took only a few shifts in the first period and was rarely double-shifted with forwards not regularly on his line; doing that would get Jagr, who already has 27 goals after scoring 31 all of last season, on the ice against some of the weaker opposing defensemen instead of facing the top pairs all the time.
"In the first period [Tuesday] I played only four shifts," Jagr said. "How can I get in the game? I don't have to always play with the same line. I make $11 million [a season] and sometimes I feel like I am stealing it. I play the same amount as the third line or fourth line. It's the coach's decision. If he doesn't want to play me they could trade me. I feel like if they're paying me they would at least want me to play a lot. Otherwise, I don't understand why they bring me here. I have no idea."
Jagr normally skates with Michael Nylander and Kip Miller, but Cassidy is trying to find ways to get him a few more even-strength shifts each period, including some with center Robert Lang, who played with him in Pittsburgh and who is clicking with Jagr on the power play. Cassidy is balancing that need with his team's overall desire for continuity, and still wants his important checking line of Jeff Halpern, Mike Grier and Steve Konowalchuk on the ice for upwards of 20 minutes a game and matching them on the opposition's top line.
"We went through a stretch where we played so many games and [Jagr] was injured and we tried to play four lines and get other guys in the mix," Cassidy said. "I don't know if it's right or wrong, but our record has been pretty good over this stretch and obviously a lot of that has to do with Jagr's line catching fire here lately.
"But there was a time when they weren't and using everyone worked for us. So there are two schools of thought there, but yeah, I'd like to get him on the ice as much as I can here after the [all-star] break for the next 20 games so that going into the playoffs he's conditioned to handle that. If he's going to have to answer the critics, then give him a fair opportunity to go out there and eat up his minutes."
Capitals Notes: General Manager George McPhee said no decision will be made on activating Konowalchuk (groin strain) from injured reserve until this afternoon. Konowalchuk had another good practice yesterday. . . . Enforcer Alex Henry (flu) is feeling better but McPhee said he does not plan on activating him until after the break. If either player is activated the Capitals would likely return recently recalled winger Stephen Peat to the minors.