THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
DALLAS — The Dallas Stars know all about Sean Avery — his history of mouthing off to teammates as well as foes, that he’s a two-time NHL leader in penalty minutes whose agitating tricks included a "bush league" stunt in the playoffs that the league quickly banned.
The way Stars co-general manager Brett Hull sees it: What’s there not to like?
Dallas signed the pesky forward to a US$15.5-million, four-year deal Wednesday, a commitment that also pushes the Stars close enough to the salary cap that they probably won’t chase more high-profile free agents.
"It’s limitless what he can bring to us," Hull said. "His skill level is getting better and better, year by year. That, with his grit, his toughness, his ability to win, I just thought it was a no-brainer to have him in our lineup."
Avery has played for three teams in six seasons, yet whatever he does, and however he does it, seems to work. In 86 games with the New York Rangers over the last two seasons, the club was 50-20-16 with him in the lineup and 9-13-3 without him.
"I think what I’ve done is just learn to manipulate the line (between right and wrong)," he said, laughing. "I like to push it to the edge, no doubt about it. That’s how I play. That’s how I live. That’s what I’m all about. I’ve learned to do it without hurting the team."
This past season, Avery tied his NHL best of 15 goals and had 18 assists in 57 games. He had four goals and three assists in eight playoff games before being sidelined by a lacerated spleen; he still made a mark by prompting the so-called "Avery Rule."
In a first-round game against New Jersey, Avery set up in front of New Jersey goalie Martin Brodeur and blocked the goalie’s view by waving his hand and stick. The move was outlawed the next day. Also that day, Stars goalie Marty Turco said this about Avery’s stunt: "Hopefully, guys understand the integrity of the sport. That’s just something you don’t do. It’s kind of bush league. Hopefully it’s the last we see of it."
Hull knows Avery rubs some guys the wrong way, even guys in his own dressing room. And Hull is OK with that.
"He goes against the stream, which I kind of like. He reminds me of myself in a way," Hull said. "I think every team needs that."
Hull named several of Dallas’ more skilled forwards — like Mike Ribeiro, Jere Lehtinen, Brad Richards and Mike Modano — and noted, "they’re not the biggest, toughest guys in the world. You need people with grit and toughness to make some space, and he does that."
Stars captain Brenden Morrow and Steve Ott have done the bulk of that. Now, Avery moves to the forefront as the Stars look to build on a post-season run that took them to the Western Conference finals. Nearly all their core players will be back to try building on that, which makes it less imperative for them to be big players in free agency.
"There’s no question he’s a guy we wanted on our team, not just a guy who fits a certain role," Hull said.
Avery is proud of his tough-guy role, too, explaining that it comes from his disdain for losing.
"At times I’ll push that envelope to do anything to win," he said. "Maybe it’s not always proper as far as the hockey gods go or the traditionalists. I like to do whatever it takes to help my team win. I don’t think that’s going to change. That’s what makes me me."
Avery, 28, will earn $3.5 million in the upcoming season, then $4 million each of the following three years. He also has a limited no-trade clause.
Avery loved his time in New York and was hoping to stick around, but the Rangers didn’t come after him. When the Stars did, he was eager to be reunited with Hull, and with a club coming off a promising post-season.
"I’m just looking to come in and enhance a team that has an identity already," Avery said. "I certainly wanted to go to a team that had a chance to win. I think that’s an understatement when you’re referring to these guys."
.Hull’s co-GM, Les Jackson, said coach Dave Tippett embraced the move, too. Jackson also said the Stars will now focus on signing guys who can add depth.
"We’re pretty limited," he said. "The supermarket is likely going to close."
A bit undersized at five-foot-10, 195 pounds, Avery wasn’t drafted but made his way to the NHL with the Red Wings in December 2001. Playing for Los Angeles, he led the NHL with 261 penalty minutes in 2003-04. The Kings traded him to the Rangers in February 2007.
Avery is the kind of guy players hate to face and fans love to boo. Yet Hull loved having him on his side when they were together and he expects Stars fans to embrace Avery, too.
"His confidence is through the roof. Early in his career, that was probably his biggest downfall," Hull said. "Obviously, you’ve seen him grow."
Still, Hull said, "He won’t let a guy take a night off. If he sees you doing that, he’s going to let you know it."
Avery’s not all grit, by the way. He recently spent a month working as an intern at Vogue magazine.