Stars picking up the pieces

The Dallas Stars are back where they want to be.

After Avery, injuries, Dallas is in unfamiliar position for January

Mike Modano is in his 19th season with the Stars, who have made the playoffs in all but three seasons since he joined. ((Dave Sandford/Getty Images))

The Dallas Stars are back where they want to be.

Not in the standings, where the Stars lag far behind their standard in recent years in the Western Conference, but in terms of going about their business in a nice, quiet fashion after the Sean Avery saga.

Mike Modano, the all-time U.S. leader in the NHL with 541 goals and 1309 points, knows the team has a lot of work to do just to get back to the playoffs after making the conference final last year.

"For us right now, we're kind of in a playoff mode, so we don't want to fall much more behind," he said during a recent media conference call.

With the cloud lifted from Averygate, Dallas has indeed improved, going 10-6-3 through Jan. 16. In case you were in a fallout shelter, a short synopsis of what transpired:

Avery was suspended by the NHL in early December after he made vulgar comments about an ex-girlfriend actress who's dating another player. Once headline-addicted, he has been as visible as D.B. Cooper and is apparently undergoing some sort of counseling, somewhere.

League commissioner Gary Bettman took a stand for women everywhere, stating at an Edmonton luncheon he wouldn't want to explain the comments to his young daughter. He didn't say whether his daughter has asked about the improbably developed and underdressed young ladies that serve as "Ice Girls" in southern U.S. markets, including Dallas, or whether she's asked why there are no women in real authoritative hockey roles as there are in the NFL and major league baseball.

The Dallas hockey team showed their stripes within hours of Avery's comments. While the city's more famous sports teams have had no compunction taking on players with very real and serious legal problems such as Pacman Jones and Jason Kidd, the Stars had no interest working through things with a player who had never previously been suspended, much less arrested.

Hasn't spoken to Avery since

While that was totally their prerogative, it happened just seven weeks of what was to be a four-year marriage. The team soon announced it was parting ways with Avery, a move that will cost them untold millions of a $16 million US deal, depending on what happens next.

Tellingly, Modano, who has been considered a leader with the club for about 15 years, hasn't spoken to Avery since the incident.

When asked by whether the club could have handled the situation differently, there was no talk of trying to find common ground with an idiosyncratic teammate (who, like Modano, has dated attractive celebrities) or setting up a better system of "kangaroo court" dressing room justice to handle wayward teammates.

Modano's answer suggests he believes it never should have happened in the first place and that the Stars veterans were miffed at having Avery — who had the support of co-general manager and teammate Brett Hull — foisted on them.

"I think we would have analyzed it a little bit more over the summer before you go into the free agent market, and do a little more homework and detailed analysis of players, I think, [getting] opinions of players who have played with him or how guys feel about it," said Modano.

"Talent-wise, he's a very skilled kid and player, but I think character-wise and personality [he] just didn't blend with the criteria that we've always had as Dallas Stars since [former general manager] Bob Gainey was here," said Modano. 

The club dug itself a big hole early in the season. In addition to dealing with a square peg, there were significant injuries to Sergei Zubov, Brenden Morrow, Jere Lehtinen, Joel Lundqvist and Steve Ott. 
Goalie Marty Turco has struggled, but Modano and his teammates remain supportive. ((Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press))

Goalie Marty Turco was dreadful during the first two months of the season, ranking at the bottom of the NHL among regulars in save percentage and goals-against average.

"Those five or six guys were out all at the same time for a good stretch of time," said Modano. "It was tough to find some rhythm and find guys who could fill those holes, obviously."

While the integral Zubov and Morrow are gone for the season, the other three players all recently returned to the lineup.

There's no doubt Dallas has been compromised by injuries, but it's also true the Stars have been talking an awful lot about being down men this season. Pittsburgh, who have more points than the Stars, and Boston and Montreal, who have many more points, are teams whose injury rolls have rivaled Dallas in terms of significant players and length of injuries.

There's cause for hope among the club's fans. Turco and the Stars have typically shone brightest around this time of year, when a lot of other teams are flagging. Dallas is 26-5-2 in February games in the first three seasons since the lockout.

The 38-year-old veteran didn't have a definitive explanation, but with division rivals who are all located in California and Arizona, the composition of the schedule has played a role.

"I think for the first part [of the season] we do travel a lot, and we're not at home quite a bit," offered Modano. "So we tend to have our ups and downs early in the season until we kind of get back on a normal schedule where we're here a little bit more often because of our time change, and heading out West all the time."

Dallas needs the trend of midseason success to continue this year. Otherwise the team will miss the playoffs for just the fourth time in Modano's long tenure, and the blame game won't just be about Sean Avery.