New York Ranger Coach John Tortorella has never been a big Sean Avery fan, to put it mildly. After Avery’s unfortunate “sloppy seconds” comment concerning a former girlfriend, Tortorella, working for TSN at the time, said “He doesn’t belong in the league.” Now a couple years later, Tortorella has made it happen. Avery is out of the NHL after being placed on waivers. He is now plying his trade for the Ranger AHL team in Hartford. Both Tortorella and GM Glen Sather are painting all this as a pure hockey decision. The facts seem to indicate otherwise.
When the Rangers signed free agent Brad Richards from Dallas to team up with Marian Gaborik, the only thing missing was a grinding winger to get them the puck. Richards is a fine passer and sees the rink well. Gaborik is a pure shooter who doesn’t like the dirty work. When he comes to play, Gaborik is a legitimate 50-goal scorer. But both of them need someone to go in the corners and get the puck. Neither of them are grinders. Avery’s skills seemed well-suited to precisely this kind of role, at least for several shifts per game. But the job was given to Wojtek Wolski; a peculiar choice, and one that has not, to this point, borne fruit. Last season, when paired with Gaborik in games against Toronto and the Islanders, Avery had two of his best outings of the year. In the Islanders game, Gaborik had a hat trick and an assist, while Avery picked up three assists. Against Toronto, Avery picked up three more assists. MSG commentators Sam Rosen and Al Trautwig both voiced their feeling that Sean Avery had been the best player on the ice. Yet Tortorella has given Avery no chance to skate on the Richards-Gaborik line. Not a one. Sound curious to you? It would seem he’d want to try all the options and see what clicks. In a recent preseason game against the Flyers, Avery and Brian Boyle were paired together for their first shifts and produced a solid forecheck, controlled the puck and got a goal. There was definite chemistry. Yet Tortorella opted not use them together again. The only reason I can think of is Avery played too well! Avery brings energy, aggression and speed to every shift. Although playing limited minutes under Tortorella, Avery led the Rangers in assists per minute played last season. He backs down from nobody and always has his teammates back. Avery comes with baggage, and that baggage obscures an essential fact. He is a good hockey player. Not a superstar, a good solid player.
Make no mistake, Sean Avery’s fate had been decided long before he reported to training camp. Throughout camp and in the preseason games in Europe, Avery played limited minutes on lines with minor league kids. The company line says that Avery lost out on the thirteenth and last forward position to Erik Christensen. I love Christensen…..for shootouts. This implies twelve forwards were better than Sean Avery. Let’s look at this. Gaborik, Richards, Brian Boyle, Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky and Brandon Prust are all viable choices. So far, no argument. Mike Rupp gets the nod as the new enforcer, replacing the late Derek Boogaard. Every team should have a big tough guy. Derek Stepan is just 21 years old and the kid has real potential, so he’s a go. Artem Anisimov? Here’s another young guy with size who has had flashes. OK, we keep him. That’s nine forwards. From here things get much murkier. Erik Christensen is great on shootouts, not so much anywhere else. Do you keep a guy just for shootouts? Wojtek Wolski with his 3.8 million dollar salary? Ruslan Fedentenko? I’d rather have Avery. Kris Newbury? Who? Having never heard of him, I did a little research. Almost Avery’s age, it appears Newbury has never played in the NHL. His resume is all minor league teams and he’s no kid. My guess is he is probably a quasi-goon, and not a great one. I hope I’m wrong and he is a pleasant surprise. But this is a no-brainer. Avery all the way. In announcing the waiver, Tortorella said Avery takes too many penalties. He’s right. But he draws more penalties than he takes. I guess that explanation doesn’t really fly either.
No doubt there are people all over the hockey world saying good riddance to Sean Avery. Tortorella was not the only guy Avery did not endear himself to. But make no mistake, the Garden crowd loves Avery. They want him back. I have been attending Ranger games since my father took me to the old Garden to see Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull and the like. The Rangers have never had a player that ignites the fans as Sean Avery does. In the pregame warm-ups, it is fun to see him head to the red line to “socialize” with that evenings opponents. He adds spice to between-period interviews, usually the airwave equivalent of Ambien. He is an interesting, complex and highly-intelligent guy, certainly not your average jock. I’ll concede sometimes his judgment could use some work, but who’s perfect? For that matter, John Tortorella is hardly a master of restraint.
Avery is in Hartford, so he is still Ranger property. They are paying him a lot of cake to toil in the minors. Here’s hoping someone will play himself off the roster, and Avery will get called up to the big team. Until then, I will go to the games and wear my Sean Avery jersey pictured below. I like several other players, but those jerseys are expensive and I will not be buying another. So I’ll be wearing number 16. But I’d much rather see Sean Avery wearing it again. He didn’t deserve this. The Garden will be less interesting without him.
In closing, you will no doubt continue to hear Tortorella and Sather spout the company line when asked about Avery. They will say it was strictly a hockey decision. Don’t be fooled. This was personal.