The Pittsburgh Penguins always viewed Jaromir Jagr as the future of the franchise.

That didn't change when they traded the NHL scoring champion to the Washington Capitals for three prospects Wednesday.

"Our goal throughout this whole process was to get good young players," said Penguins general manager Craig Patrick. "These were the three best young players we could get."

Patrick, who made his reputation with a 1991 trade that brought Ron Francis and a Stanley Cup to Pittsburgh, is staking it on a deal he said is built around a Francis clone -- Kris Beech, a 20-year-old centre with four NHL games under his belt.

Two minor leaguers, Michal Sivek, 20, who Patrick projects as a solid second- or third-line centre, and Ross Lupaschuck, 20, a defenceman, were the other pickups.

Patrick wasn't sure if the team could afford to keep Jagr, who is set to earn $20.7 million US over the next two seasons, but he was willing to try.

That changed when he spoke with Jagr the day after the season ended.

"We sat down and he said, `What's going on with me?"' Patrick said. "And I said, `Well, I'm going to sit down with the owners and see where our budget is and we'll see how we can keep everybody.

And he said, `No, no, you don't understand. I don't want to be here."'

Patrick called the deal "the highest anxiety trade we'll ever have to make."

And unlike the Francis deal which turned to Stanley Cup silver three months later, Patrick said it will take years to determine if he did the right thing this time.

Patrick joked when asked how long it would take to assess Wednesday's trade.

"About two years after I retire," he said. "Seriously, I'd say about five years.

And don't take that to mean I plan to retire in three years."

Patrick recently signed a five-year contract extension with the Penguins -- a deal that owner and star Mario Lemieux called his off-season priority.

By contrast, Lemieux went from being hopeful about keeping the team together to agreeing it was time for Jagr to leave.

"For close to a month we couldn't deal him," Patrick said, noting the New York Rangers and New York Islanders had been the primary suitors.

As for concerns that the Penguins might have strengthened their perennial playoff foes -- whom the Penguins have beaten in six of seven series since 1991 -- Patrick smiled.

"Yeah, that's a concern. We're definitely going to see them in the playoffs," Patrick said. "But that's our goal every year -- to beat the Caps in the first round of the playoffs and go on from there."

By Joe Mandak