Despite Emery's recent troubles, he's still worth the risk

"Mercurial" is a bad thing for a goalie, at least when we're talking about both his play and the not-unexpected, quirky off-ice personality.

The explanation -- "Hey, he is a goalie" -- often is sufficient.

At least last season, the Senators' Ray Emery had the package: bad, unreliable play and a behavioral pattern that made him not worth putting up with.

To the NHL's credit, that tolerance quotient isn't as drastically adjustable as in the other major leagues, where, among the many examples, difference-making wide receivers or power forwards are cut far more slack than backup offensive linemen and seldom-used point guards.

In hockey, tardiness is a transgression for everyone; in other sports, SST means "Star's Standard Time," which generally runs anywhere from five minutes to a few hours behind.

Nonetheless, there is a tolerance quotient in hockey.

If Emery had a goals-against average of 2.11 and a saves percentage of .921, when he arrived at a mandatory full-team practice late, or at least not sufficiently early to be on the ice when it started, someone would have laughed, handed him an alarm clock and said don't let it happen again (while knowing it probably would).

If he were having a terrific season, or even seemed determined to earn his way back into the good graces of the Senators' coaching staff and his teammates, and had childish displays of temper on the ice, that would have been forgivable as "fiery." That would have included his practice fight with teammate and good friend Brian McGrattan. Even Emery's road-rage tirade at a 65-year-old driver would have been rationalized as, "Hey, it happens."

Instead, he was in the midst of a 2007-08 season that ended with him posting embarrassing numbers -- a 12-13-4 record, 3.13 goals-against average and an .890 saves percentage.

Arguably, he helped get his coach fired, drove his general manager nuts and poisoned the atmosphere, all in all accelerating the Sens' stunning collapse after a great start.

One issue involves the chicken and egg, and whether what clearly is a pattern of off-kilter behavior is a contributing factor in the deterioration of his play; and not simply a petulant reaction to losing the No. 1 job to Martin Gerber (a non-mercurial Swiss) and substandard performance when he did get chances.

That deeper analysis aside, it comes back to whether he still is capable of regaining the form he displayed in 2006-07, when he seemed to be on the verge of cracking the ranks of the league's elite goalies.

Jobs can be won back; images, restored.

The NHL's recent history is filled with examples of goalies who, when encountering horrible stretches, demotions, and potential career-killing struggles, lower their heads, say all the right things if they're asked, work hard in practice and realize there are worse lots in life than wearing a baseball cap on the bench (or not suiting up at all) and collecting a lot of money for doing it.

Curtis Joseph's classy behavior in Detroit during the 2003-04 season was the recent high-bar standard.

Even a journeyman, such as Ty Conklin, can be a good soldier and show that when he's needed, he can play well; and when he isn't, he can avoid rocking the boat.

And a former Hart Trophy winner, Jose Theodore, can surprise skeptics (even in his own dressing room) by being a good teammate and then eventually winning his way back into good graces -- and putting himself in position to get another big-time contract.

Neither John Paddock nor Bryan Murray did a good job of handling Emery, but that's history. The Senators have washed their hands of Emery.

Even standing at one of those stupid hand dryers for 20 minutes wouldn't have eliminated all the figurative moisture, since they owe him $2.25 million for the buyout and will take relatively minor cap hits over the next four seasons.

Yet he's gone.

What's next?

Emery is an unrestricted free agent, available to be signed and with every theoretical reason to take a "bargain" deal and be motivated to prove the Senators and all his critics wrong as he rebuilds his image.

The Senators couldn't give him away as long as that contract, which called for him to make $6.75 million over the next two seasons, was in force. Absolutely, another general manager would have been crazy to claim him on waivers or trade for him.

Now, though, the picture and the stakes are completely different.

Everyone knows his reputation and the potential downside.

A disgruntled backup goalie acting like a jerk -- and it should be noted that acting like a jerk isn't necessarily the same as being a jerk -- is potentially toxic and intolerable. Even a young goalie playing just well enough to be No. 1, but being a pain in the posterior while doing so, can be a problem. And there's even the possibility that for all of Emery's strong work in 2006-07, he was temporarily overrated and never was as good as billed.

Still, in the wake of the buyout and the expired waivers, he's worth the risk.

As long as all eyes are open, signing him makes sense for teams such as Los Angeles and Tampa Bay, and perhaps Washington, St. Louis, Nashville and Chicago.

Regardless of where he ends up, he will certainly help his chances if he is forced to look in the mirror for a long period of self-assessment, is encouraged to grow up and realizes, at age 25, that he potentially has a long career and many more big contracts ahead of him if he can prove himself worthy.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of the just-released "'77" and "Third Down and a War to Go."