Sean Avery has been called to the principal's office Thursday. But the controversial forward's meeting in New York with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is not the biggest challenge facing him.
It doesn't sound like his team is anxious to see him return, and Avery can suddenly become the perfect scapegoat for all that is wrong with the Dallas Stars, even though that's far from the truth.
You see, the Stars are off to an awful start. This was a team expected to be closer to first in the conference than sitting dead last two months into a new season. It seemed only reasonable since no team had a rougher postseason path to the Stanley Cup Finals than the Stars, and they have been one of the league's better teams for the last several years.
Dallas fell short last spring, of course, but the Stars were pretty darn good along the way. They disposed of Pacific Division rivals Anaheim and San Jose, respectively, before running into eventual champ Detroit. Some steady contributors did depart after the season – Mattias Norstrom, Niklas Hagman, Antti Miettinen and Stu Barnes mainly – but it wasn't the kind of roster turnover that signaled lower expectations.
But when things get this bad for a team that is supposed to be very good, stuff happens. The coach gets fired, there's a front-office shakeup or there's a major trade. None of those are options for Dallas.
Starting with the coach, this is Dave Tippett's sixth season behind the Dallas bench. Yes, that's a longer tenure than many enjoy, but Tippett has an outstanding reputation as a coach.
The Stars excel on defense and special teams, mostly because of the talent assembled, but also because Tippett has put a successful system in place. All great coaches have their quirks. Certainly we've heard complaints about even Scotty Bowman, arguably the game's greatest coach. He's certainly the most successful one. But who has ever heard a disparaging word for Tippett?
Certainly Dallas management was convinced Tippett was still the right man for the job despite the final-four ousting. The Stars rewarded him with a two-year contract extension before the season. Now, that doesn't mean a coach can't still get fired, but let's just say we'd be surprised and it would certainly be a mistake.
A front-office shakeup? That's doubtful. That happened almost exactly a year ago when GM Doug Armstrong was dismissed for far less record-wise – at least the Stars were .500 when he was fired – and the team named Les Jackson and Brett Hull co-GMs. While the jury is out as to whether Hull was really ready for such a lofty assignment, Jackson is a respected hockey executive and could cover for what Hull still needed to learn while Golden Brett would invite a high-profile look to the team's top brass.
Remember, too, Hull talked last year about wanting to make an impact deal, and Dallas was one of the few teams that really managed to pull that off at the trade deadline. Sure, bodies went flying every which way that day, but the Stars probably had the most to gain – both in the short and long term – by acquiring Richards.
An impact trade? Those are nearly impossible to pull off, especially this time of the year. You can trade money for money, but with the salary cap it's not going to be a deal that improves one area without hurting another.
Sure, Marty Turco has been awful. Do the Stars really want to trade him? Does that make any sense? They don't have anyone ready to take over, so they'd need a No. 1 goalie in return. Save those Turco for Jose Theodore or Nikolai Khabibulin or Pascal Leclaire fantasy deals for the radio call-in shows.
The bottom line is the Stars have not kept the puck out of their net, mostly because Turco is having one of his not-so-surprising flakey periods. They have not overcome key injuries, especially to captain Brenden Morrow, defenseman Sergei Zubov and two-way forward Jere Lehtinen. And they have not shown a lot of leadership.
Now along comes the perfect storm in which the team can channel all of its negative energy and let it go: Avery.
When Turco says, "Well, hopefully he doesn't back down, just show up like a man," what he's really saying is Avery has avoided physical confrontations – fights – in the past. When Turco shakes his head and says, "But we expect that out of him all year … the show continues," he's actually saying Avery is a jerk and will never change.
When Richards says, "It's none of my business and I'd rather not talk about Sean – he's got his own things going on," what he really is saying is he doesn't have anything good to say about a player who is selfish.
When Modano says, "I'm sure they'll work out their differences tonight," he was actually saying "I'm sure Dion Phaneuf will be looking to knock Avery through the sideboards and send him back across the boarder with one swift check." Then Modano went on to compliment what a great player Phaneuf is.
When Ribeiro says, "Anything he says any more doesn't shock me. I've gotten to know him a little bit more. It's just part of him," he means, "He'll say anything to get attention."
The funny thing is, Avery is not a bad hockey player. He could help any team if he cut the act and zipped his lip. He's got OK hands, decent speed, ample energy and an obvious edge. He's versatile – play him anywhere from the second to fourth lines and he can provide valuable minutes.
Of course what the Red Wings, Kings and Rangers learned is what the Stars are finding out. In the end, Avery is just too much of a pain in this sport. His personality might work in baseball, basketball or football, but it rubs wrong against the hockey culture of deflecting attention, where the team is more important than the individual.
Even Hull said he doesn't know if Avery can fit back into the room. That is a telling statement since the Stars can't trade Avery for two reasons: his reputation and he has three years at $4 million per season remaining on what now looks like an embarrassing deal for Dallas.
What's left? Well, Hull has warned all along Avery can't "embarrass" the organization. That might lead you to believe there's a behavioral clause in the deal, and if so maybe the Stars will look to revoke the contract on those terms.
And this is no Ray Emery case. Avery cannot just go play in Russia or somewhere else and expect to get offers to return to the NHL later.
It was a silly comment and a horrible lapse in judgment. And now Avery might pay for it with his career.
- Dave Tippett