- Scott Burnside, NHL
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Ray Emery has long marched to the beat of a different drummer.
There was the mask adorned with the likeness of Mike Tyson. There were the mod clothes. There was the time last spring when he overslept for a team playoff charter and subsequently got in an auto accident while trying to make it to the airport for the flight. There was an alleged road-rage incident prior to the start of the season in which an Ottawa motorist reportedly accused Emery of trying to run him off the road.
Then, there have been this season's antics.
Emery said coach John Paddock told him to "beat it" after arriving late for practice on Friday. The tardiness occurred a day after Emery engaged in a stick-breaking tantrum during an on-ice workout. (If we played as infrequently as Emery has and as poorly as he has when he's had the chance, we might break sticks, too.)
All of this would just be fodder for water-cooler chatter if Emery were playing like he did last season when he led the Sens to their first Stanley Cup finals. But Emery has borne little resemblance to that netminder, even after signing a three-year, $9.5 million offseason deal.
Slowed by offseason wrist surgery, Emery is 5-3-3 with a 2.88 goals-against average and .891 save percentage. He has played just once since Dec. 12 (an overtime loss to Chicago in which he gave up four goals on 29 shots) and has officially given up his No. 1 ranking on the team to Swiss-born Martin Gerber, who has played in 28 of the Sens' 38 games.
Last season, the tables were reversed, with Gerber unable to nail down the starter's job and Emery coming on to steal it away and set the stage for the offseason pay increase. Gerber was the good soldier and played very well down the stretch, prompting many to presume new GM Bryan Murray would deal Gerber over the summer. He didn't, and the Sens, by far the best team in the Eastern Conference, are thankful for the non-move.
Emery, however, seems ill-equipped to handle the reversal of fortune.
Players and coaches have reportedly questioned his work ethic, and his actions this week reinforced the attitude that the 25-year-old doesn't have the mental tools to be an elite NHL netminder.
When Emery returned to practice Saturday and tried to smooth things over with Paddock and the team, he acknowledged to reporters that he was having trouble getting motivated.
"I've never been a guy that's on time all the time, but I was disappointed in not getting here on time [Friday]," Emery said, according to The Canadian Press. "I didn't know who saw [Thursday's tantrum], but I just got mad, mainly at myself, because I've been having trouble getting motivated on the ice."
Huh? Having a new contract and playing for the best team in the conference, and perhaps winning a Stanley Cup, aren't motivation enough?
Even when Gerber was getting lit up for seven goals on 29 shots in a loss to Washington on Saturday, Paddock chose not to make a goaltending switch. You can be sure it was a message sent to Emery, not Gerber.
The issue creates an interesting dilemma for Murray.
Gerber may be his starter now, but is the former Carolina goaltender the one to lead you to a long-awaited Stanley Cup? If the answer is no, then Emery must stay in the fold and Paddock, et al, have to find a way to keep Emery's brain in the game.
If you believe Gerber is Cup-winning material, then Murray would certainly like to add some secondary scoring, and Emery should be prime trade bait. He's not all that expensive, he's young and he's been to the Cup finals. Should be pretty attractive to a team like Los Angeles or maybe even Edmonton, provided Murray can convince other teams that Emery isn't a liability.
After this week, that's a pretty tall order.
A gander at the Western Conference standings will reveal a familiar face near the top of the ladder -- familiar, and yet surprising. After the Dallas Stars mortgaged a significant part of their future last February in a failed effort to produce a long playoff run, it looked like they would be one of those teams destined to spend some time outside the playoff bubble while they replenished their depleted farm team.
But this season the Stars have reinvented themselves. Flying under the NHL Hmm Radar, the Stars won three in a row last week and have won 16 of their past 21 games. They lead the tough Pacific Division and are second in the Western Conference. While they continue to be difficult to play against, ranking seventh in goals allowed, the Stars have become a veritable offensive juggernaut.
Their power-play unit is ranked fourth in the league, and the Stars rank sixth in goals per game, a dramatic departure from last season when they were 22nd in offense. They have managed to accomplish this with significant injuries to key players, including veteran forward Jere Lehtinen and defensemen Mattias Norstrom and Philippe Boucher. Much of the slack has been picked up by the emergence of former Montreal bad boy Mike Ribeiro, who is having a monster season with 43 points in 36 games.
But Ribeiro's breakout season is only part of the Stars' success story. With offseason trades a thing of the past in the new NHL, the Stars looked within and found some surprising answers.
Antti Miettinen, a seventh-round draft pick in his third full season with Dallas, has taken on a front-line role and has 17 points. Youngsters Nicklas Grossman and Mark Fistric have also settled in nicely along the blue line, eating up minutes that would otherwise be owned by Norstrom and Boucher.
The nicest surprise has been defenseman Matt Niskanen. The 28th overall pick in 2005, Niskanen has gone from high school in Virginia, Minn., to the University of Minnesota-Duluth to the AHL to a starring role in the NHL in less than four seasons. Most recently, he has been paired with team leader Sergei Zubov, and that's not because the team was looking for someone to mentor Niskanen.
"He's a talented kid to do what he's been doing," Stars interim co-GM Les Jackson told ESPN.com this week. "He's earned it."
You can't blame Boston Bruins fans if they are suffering a bit of gut-churning déjà vu. After an inspired start that saw the Bruins actually within a few points of conference-leading Ottawa, the B's are starting to look alarmingly like the team that floundered through the past two seasons.
The team was waxed 5-0 by Atlanta on Saturday, giving up three first-period goals and two more in the second. The Bruins' sixth straight loss saw them drop below the playoff line into 10th place in the East.
After producing solid defensive outings for most of the first third of the season, the Bruins have given up 25 goals over the course of their losing streak. Goaltender Alex Auld, who was terrific when acquired from Phoenix to back up Tim Thomas, looked dreadful Saturday, while Thomas had allowed 14 goals on 125 shots in his past four starts.
The Manny Fernandez experiment has proven to be one of the biggest busts of the NHL season; the former Wild netminder has appeared in just four games and is out indefinitely after surgery on his left knee.
Beyond goaltending, the Bruins continue to lack leadership, the kind of dressing-room presence that can end the kind of streak they're on now. Sadly, that's been a constant theme for many years now in Beantown.
Stuck in Neutral
No one likes to see a player get drilled like Matt Cullen did last week. Cullen, enjoying a strong season back in Carolina (37 points in 38 games) had his head down as he carried the puck across the middle of the ice. The Rangers' Colton Orr did not leave his feet and his hands were up only slightly, appearing to catch Cullen in the upper chest when the two collided.
The hit left Cullen with a broken nose and a possible concussion. Orr was given a game misconduct for interference by game officials. It's the kind of play, sadly, that reinforces the notion in some quarters that physicality is an endangered part of the new NHL. There is an inherent danger that comes with being an NHL player. That danger is increased if a player puts himself in a vulnerable position, as Cullen did. While the outcome of the hit was unfortunate for one of the game's good guys, it was a hockey hit. It was not from behind, it wasn't late, and it wasn't a cheap shot or a stick foul. It was the kind of hit that in some ways defines the game's inspiring mix of beauty and savagery. The NHL needs to make sure that balance remains intact. This week, the league missed a chance to do just that.
Our top story lines of the week
1. For those in North America who follow the annual World Junior Championship, the United States entry has quietly established itself as the team to beat at the tournament currently under way in the Czech Republic. The Americans went undefeated in the preliminary games and earned a bye into the medal round, a crucial element for previous champions. The talented American team, led by top NHL draft picks like James vanRiemsdyk, Blake Geoffrion, Jonathon Blum and New York Islanders prospect Kyle Okposo, is a reminder of the future promise of American entries on the international stage. For those devoted American fans, the medal rounds will now be available on the NHL Network in the States. As for three-time defending champion Canada, it saw its 20-game WJC winning streak come to an end with a 4-3 loss to Sweden in the preliminary round.
2. It's probably of little solace to former Phoenix Coyotes GM Mike Barnett, but it looks like he knew what he was doing after all. The Coyotes have far exceeded preseason prognostications that had them at the bottom of the NHL standings. The team has improved its defensive play dramatically, ranking 15th in goals-against average (last season, they were 28th). Some of that success can be attributed to the play of goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, whom the Coyotes acquired earlier this season from Anaheim. But much of it is the evolution of a talented defensive corps that includes homegrown talent Keith Ballard, Zbynek Michalek, Keith Yandle and Matt Jones. Six rookies have appeared in Coyotes games this season, and while they remain tepid offensively (24th in goals per game), there are signs of a thaw in that department. Center Martin Hanzal, the 17th overall pick in 2005, is fifth among rookie scorers with 19 points and fellow rookie Peter Mueller is seventh with 17 points. Barnett, of course, was dismissed in the offseason, along with senior advisor Cliff Fletcher. Former New York Rangers assistant GM Don Maloney is the current GM.
3. With Curtis Joseph turning in a stellar performance at the Spengler Cup (Canada won the annual international tournament in Davos, Switzerland, on Monday), it will be interesting to see if NHL teams take a more active interest in the 40-year-old, who is in fifth place on the all-time wins list (one behind Terry Sawchuk). The Pittsburgh Penguins, who are without injured starter Marc-Andre Fleury, would seem a logical destination, but the Penguins haven't shown interest in Joseph's services to date. The woeful play of backup Andrew Raycroft in Toronto might provide an opening to Joseph, who was a popular member of the Leafs in the late 1990s and lives just north of the city.
4. You have to wonder when things will reach "critical" in Tampa. The one-time Stanley Cup champs (2004 seems like a long time ago, doesn't it?) seem to have lost their way, having lost four in a row and seven of the past eight. They are now last in the Eastern Conference and have shown little resiliency, ranking 29th in winning percentage when the opposing team scores first. One imagines something will have to give. But what? GM Jay Feaster has insisted he will not move one of the big three (Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier or Brad Richards) and his loyalty to coach John Tortorella is unwavering (the implication being that if Tortorella goes, Feaster will go, as well). The team found itself in a similar position last January, but managed to reverse course and make the playoffs. The Lightning's play of late provides little indication they can do it again.
5. Is this the end of the NHL line for chronic underachiever Sergei Samsonov? The skilled Russian, who was once the eighth overall pick in the NHL draft (selected by Boston in 1997), was put on waivers by the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday. With a $3.5 million price tag, it's hard to imagine any team would be desperate enough to claim him after he failed to score in 23 games for the Hawks. Maybe with teams only having to pay half Samsonov's salary upon re-entry, there might be a taker, but why? Samsonov was acquired by the Edmonton Oilers in time for their run to the 2006 Stanley Cup finals, but his play was largely indifferent. That was followed by a whopper contract in Montreal, but Samsonov soon wore out his welcome with coach Guy Carbonneau and ended up in Chicago. What has been perplexing about Samsonov's persistent lack of productivity is that he should have thrived in the post-lockout NHL with his puck-handling skills and speed.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.