Emery a distraction Sens can't afford

Emery a distraction Sens can't afford
By Ross McKeon, Yahoo Sports
January 30, 2008

Ross McKeon
Yahoo Sports
Can't live with him, can't live without him.

That might be the most apt description for the Ottawa Senators' predicament over their talented yet temperamental goaltender, Ray Emery.

With all due respect to Detroit and other established teams, Ottawa has been the model franchise with its ability to build through the draft and establish itself as a perennial postseason participant in rather short order.

The Senators were the second of nine teams added between 1991-2000 as the league aggressively expanded – for better or worse – from 21 to its current 30 teams. Ottawa took its lumps early on, missing the playoffs each of its first four seasons while patiently developing its drafted talent.

The five-year plan paid off as the Senators qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in 1996-97 and they haven't been left out since – 10 years and counting. Criticized for some recent spring failures, Ottawa broke through last season by winning the Eastern Conference crown before losing a five-game series in the finals against Anaheim.

Ottawa shook off any lingering disappointment in quick order, something other recent runner-ups have struggled to do, to again establish itself as the team to beat in the East this season. With dynamic offensive threats Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley leading the way, the Senators epitomize the new NHL with youth and speed.

There are very few reasons why the Senators can't continue their upper-echelon consistency and threaten to win the Stanley Cup for years to come. Who can push them over the top? Ray Emery. Who can prevent them from getting there? Ray Emery.

Emery emerged from the shadow of the departed Dominik Hasek last season to win the No. 1 job and post decent numbers: 33-16, 2.47 goals-against average, a .918 save percentage and five shutouts during 58 appearances. He was solid in the postseason, playing in all 20 games, winning 13, with a 2.26 GAA, a .907 save percentage and three shutouts.

But there were bumps along the way, mostly centered around off-ice incidents and a questionable work ethic. Twice Emery was late for team flights last season and he was involved in a much-publicized minor auto accident on his way to a second-round playoff game against New Jersey.

Emery signed a three-year contract extension for $9.5 million in an offseason that also included wrist surgery that prevented the 25-year-old native of Cayuga, Ontario from starting the season in good health.

Career back-up Martin Gerber picked up the slack, playing so well early on that many saw Emery's grasp on the No. 1 job slipping away. Once rehabbed, Emery drew criticism from coach John Paddock and even team captain Alfredsson, both stating that he needed to work harder in practice to prove he deserved playing time again.

Emery reacted poorly, lashing out with temper tantrums, fighting a teammate in practice, showing up late with a poor excuse and basically sending the vibe he didn't really care if he remained a Senator or not.

The situation improved somewhat before the All-Star break, then Emery showed up late to the team's first scheduled practice after the break Monday. The timing is amazing since Paddock announced just the week before that Emery and Gerber would basically be auditioning for the No. 1 job over the next 10-15 games. All Emery had to do was toe the line and play like he can and he'd probably emerge with the job he wants.

Gerber helped Carolina to a Stanley Cup, backing up Conn Smythe-winner Cam Ward, but he's probably not the goalie to lead Ottawa to where it wants to get. Banned from Monday's practice, Emery was fined approximately $14,700 (one day's pay) by the team in accordance with the league's collective bargaining agreement.

If it appears the Senators are losing patience with a deteriorating situation, they are. And they should be. It's rare for teams to put up with any kind of distraction for very long, and Emery – a fourth-round pick by the Sens in 2001 – has been just that for five months now, including training camp.

General manager Bryan Murray has talked openly about the possibility of a trade, but other GMs are leery now of what they might be getting. And there are teams that could use goaltending help – Los Angeles, Tampa Bay and Edmonton head that list. But if Ottawa deals Emery, it's going to need quality in goal and who is going to give them that? In truth, the Sens may regret failing to acquire Vesa Toskala two seasons ago when they were in talks with the San Jose Sharks.

When you read some of the comments made recently by teammates, it's obvious there's a lack of trust and respect now for Emery, the No. 1 thing you don't need creeping into the locker room at this stage of the season for this kind of team.

Murray said it himself talking to the Toronto Star: "If this guy would just put his mind to it, if he worked his ass off, well, he's a helluva goalie and a helluva athlete."

Emery has a lot of personality. He's outspoken, tough and competitive. He never had the job handed to him, he had to improve technically and earn it. His teammates like him when he's not causing distractions, so maybe the situation is repairable.

Emery was on the ice 30 minutes early for Wednesday's practice in preparation for Thursday night's game against visiting Boston. He stayed on afterward to take extra shots. Maybe Emery is willing to conform.

Time is growing short with the trade deadline a month away and tensions are running high throughout the organization. Emery may never find himself in this good of a situation again. Which way does he want this to go? Stay tuned.

Ross McKeon is an NHL editor for Yahoo! Sports. Send Ross a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.

Updated on Thursday, Jan 31, 2008 12:12 am, EST

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