Commentary

The next step for the Stars is to turn the team around

Updated: December 16, 2008, 2:56 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

In the end, this was the easy part.

Banishing Sean Avery, as the Dallas Stars did Sunday, marks a starting point, not an ending.

By announcing Sunday morning that the troubled forward was not going to return to the team, the Stars formally ended the brief, expensive Sean Avery Era in Dallas.

But that much had seemed inevitable almost from the moment on Dec. 2, when Avery gathered the media around him in the visitors dressing room in Calgary and uttered his now-infamous "sloppy seconds" comments, an absurdly tactless off-color reference to a former girlfriend, actress Elisha Cuthbert, who's now apparently involved with Calgary defenseman Dion Phaneuf.

The NHL immediately suspended Avery indefinitely for this latest self-destructive incident, and Stars owner Tom Hicks responded almost as quickly, saying that if the NHL hadn't suspended Avery, the team would have.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman ultimately handed Avery a six-game suspension, which ended with Saturday's 3-0 loss to Nashville.

A little more than 12 hours later, on Sunday morning, the Stars announced they would pay Avery his salary and wished him Godspeed but said he was done with the team. There would be no reconciliation, no "maybe" or "we'll see," just "goodbye."

The two entities part company, then, with the road ahead of each only slightly more defined than before the announcement.

The Stars could have made things more difficult for Avery. They could have pursued legal avenues in the hopes of getting out from under the now-monstrous yoke of Avery's four-year, $15.5 million contract signed in July.

That they didn't speaks as much to the toll Avery and his act have taken on a team that began the season as a legitimate Stanley Cup contender as it does to their corporate largesse.

By smoothing Avery's path of departure as much as possible, the Stars hope to focus all of their attention on their nightmare season. In some ways, it's like walking away from a bad relationship as quickly and quietly as possible in the hope of avoiding one final blowup, which would cause even more collateral damage.

"You want what's best for the player," co-GM Brett Hull told reporters during a conference call Sunday morning. "But I think more than anything, for us, we want what's best for the Dallas Stars.

"This is not, I'm not sure you'd call it a witch hunt. We don't want to ruin Sean or his career. We want Sean to get better."

They just want him to get better somewhere else.

"The Stars need to move on. The team needs to move on and start winning in a more consistent basis," Hull said.

The Stars lost Saturday night without Avery and have won two games in a row just once this season. On the day they voted Avery off their island, the Stars were last in the Western Conference.

Sean Avery

Avery

Center
Dallas Stars

Profile

2009 Season Stats
GM G A PTS +/- PIM
23 3 7 10 2 77

By closing the door to Avery's return to the team, ownership and management have given the coaching staff and players in the room a vote of confidence. It was clear after the Calgary incident they'd all had enough of Avery and his antics, and ownership heeded those words.

Hull acknowledged that while the final decision came from the top of the organization, they listened very closely to the coaching staff and leadership group in the dressing room.

"Their voice was heard loud and clear," Hull said.

That said, no one connected with the Stars believes this is a panacea for this team.

Sean Avery's departure doesn't clear up the team's horrific injury problems and it doesn't help its power play, head coach Dave Tippett told ESPN.com on Sunday.

Still, if the Stars' revival is about cleaning up messes, this is a start.

"The more you can get cleaned up, the better off you are," Tippett said.

Center Brad Richards, who came to Dallas at the trade deadline a year ago and is a former Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP, told ESPN.com on Sunday that all teams like to avoid the unknown.

"Whether it's Sean or anything, you always want your team to be clear of any uncertainties. So, this is clarity, and you hope it's good for our team, and we hope it's good for Sean," Richards said.

Captain Brenden Morrow, sidelined with a knee injury, said Sunday's decision didn't come as much of a surprise, but it was important nonetheless.

Wondering about whether Avery is coming back is "not going to be a week-to-week thing," Morrow told ESPN.com. "To know he's no longer a Dallas Star, it does allow all our focus to be on other things, and that's winning games."

No matter how you cut it, Avery was a problem whose presence disrupted the normally close-knit Stars dressing room.

Hull acknowledged that Avery repeatedly defied or broke team rules.

He embarrassed the organization.

A player has to be accepted in his new environment, Hull said. "But you have to do everything to be accepted," he added.

Avery, in the end, could not or would not fit in. Now he is gone for good.

We have a lot of work to do to move forward.

-- Stars coach Dave Tippett

What happens to the Stars now will depend on a host of other issues. Getting healthy is one. The team is currently without top defenseman Sergei Zubov, who has a nagging hip injury. Veteran defenseman Stephane Robidas is out with a broken jaw, Morrow is gone at least until the playoffs with his knee injury, and veteran forward Jere Lehtinen has played in just three games thus far. Steve Ott has a broken hand, and Joel Lundqvist is also out.

"We have a lot of work to do to move forward," Tippett said.

Progress, and whether this decision on Avery is a catalyst for that progress, will be easy to mark. The nightly scores and the team's place in the standings will be constant reminders of the Stars' ability to put this behind them or of deeper problems that might be plaguing them.

For Avery, progress will be much more difficult to chart.

He is in the voluntary stage of the Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program of the NHL and NHLPA, ostensibly to address anger-management issues. (In a statement, union head Paul Kelly said it would "continue to monitor [Avery's] situation closely." The NHLPA has 60 days to issue a grievance.) If he can move through that process and then decides he wants to play hockey again, then the Stars will try to find the appropriate place for him to play -- somewhere other than Dallas, of course.

"He's got to fix those demons he's got before that can happen," Hull said.

Quite simply, Avery has no value as a hockey player. Not right now.

The Stars don't have a dedicated AHL affiliate, so they farm their prospects and minor leaguers to a number of AHL teams. Some minor pro teams have suggested they want no part of Avery, but sources indicate there are also some teams that wouldn't mind having the buzz that would accompany Avery's return to the game.

If Avery can get his head back in the game and fit in even at the AHL level, that's where it gets interesting.

As much as Avery is a pariah at this moment, that view might change significantly between now and the March 4 trade deadline.

Should Avery show he's changed and the Stars bring him back through waivers, he could be claimed by another NHL team at half his salary and half his salary-cap hit. By that time, Avery might look pretty attractive to a team that has Cup aspirations but lacks what they see as the required grit to get over the hump.

But that moment is far away.

"There's no sense talking about it until he gets better," Hull said.

Although he was talking about Avery, the Stars' co-GM might just as well have been talking about his own team.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.

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