DALLAS – The Dallas Stars have definitely been better without Sean Avery.
Since the agitating forward was suspended for crude comments he made about his ex-girlfriends dating other NHL players, the Stars have won more in 22 games than in the 23 games Avery played.
They have gone from having the fewest points in the Western Conference to within four points of a playoff spot with nearly half the season left.
His absence from the locker room has been a relief.
“Talent-wise, he’s a very skilled kid and player, but I think character-wise and (his)personality just didn’t blend with the criteria that we’ve always had as Dallas Stars,” Mike Modano said.
While not the only factor in Dallas’ early struggles, Avery was the most prominent.
“We knew going into it that it was going to be something that we would have to adjust to,” said Modano, the highest-scoring American-born player in NHL history, and part of the Stars franchise his entire 20-year career.
“Over time, you could just feel it wasn’t working.”
The NHL suspended Avery for six games after his crude comments Dec. 2. When he was eligible to return from that, the Stars then said he wouldn’t play for them again – even though he was only two months into a US$15.5 million, four-year contract they are still paying.
“As a group, we just had to move forward,” coach Dave Tippett said. “Who knows, if we had played better before that, maybe it would have worked out. I don’t know. We weren’t a very good team early and changes had to be made.”
The Stars, 8-11-4 with 20 points through 23 games when Avery was suspended, have a record of 12-7-3 (27 points) since. That slight surge has at least renewed their playoff hopes.
With 36 games left after the all-star break, beginning Tuesday night at home against Atlanta, Dallas is four points behind eighth-place Anaheim for the last playoff spot.
The Stars have three games left against their Pacific Division foes, plus four more games – and extra chances to earn points – than Anaheim has left. But Minnesota and Columbus (49 points each) are also between the Stars and the top eight.
“Let’s be realistic, it’s going to go right down to the end,” Steve Ott said. “It’s going to be where do we sit in the playoff picture, and how do we get there.”
Stars co-general manager Brett Hull, once a teammate of Avery’s, played a key role in bringing him to Dallas in hopes of adding grit to a club that lost in the Western Conference finals last season.
The Stars also lost four key players last off-season with the retirements of centre Stu Barnes (now a Stars assistant coach) and defenceman Mattias Norstrom, and the loss of wingers Niklas Hagman and Antti Miettinen in free agency.
Then 18 games into the season, captain Brenden Morrow tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee and had surgery, though he is hopeful of playing again this season.
After missing the first 12 games because of a hip injury, defenceman Sergei Zubov played only 10 times before re-injuring it and needing surgery that likely will keep him out the rest of the year.
Right-winger Jere Lehtinen has only been back in the lineup regularly the past month after being hampered by an upper-body injury. Centre Joel Lundqvist has been bothered all season by a shoulder injury and Ott missed 11 games with a broken hand.
The injuries forced the Stars to switch a lot of things around, with the team becoming more dependent on several rookies and younger players, including James Neal and Fabian Brunnstrom.
“It was everything. (Avery) was definitely part of the problem, but there were so many things going on,” Ott said. “Injuries, inexperience, and him obviously in the dressing room, all that stuff. And when you kind of start clearing away all the smoke, you finally see the true team, and I think that’s what you’ve seen the last little while.”
Avery has a tough-guy image on the ice and delights in being called the most hated player in the NHL for his many antics. However, until last month he had never been suspended during his seven years in the league. He has pursued an interest in the fashion world away from hockey, including an internship with Vogue magazine.
In 23 games for Dallas, Avery had three goals, seven assists and what were a league-high 77 penalty minutes. But he never meshed with his new teammates.
Modano hasn’t had any contact with Avery since the suspension. Avery was denied by teammates an opportunity to apologize to them, and his public apology the day after his remarks came from his personal publicist and not the team.
“I haven’t brought it up to Brett either. But I’m sure he’s kind of kept in touch with him,” Modano said. “But I haven’t heard anything from the other guys, either, that have had any contact with him.”
When Avery was suspended, he told the Stars he needed help dealing with anger issues. He went to an undisclosed location seeking treatment through a voluntary program set up by the NHL players association, and the team said he is still in treatment.