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2015-16 Flyers season review: Radko Gudas is much more than a big, physical bruiser

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Radko Gudas' game is centered around his big, physical frame and punishing hits -- attributes that aren't necessarily valued as much as they once were in the NHL. But his success despite that makes him one of the team's most intriguing players.

Rob Carr/Getty Images

Radko Gudas just looks like a Philadelphia Flyer.

You know what I mean. The big beard and burly frame. The devastating hits. When you think of the classic definition of the Flyers, you think of bruising hits and pure intimidation, and those are easily the most recognizable traits in Gudas' game. He even goes over the line with relative frequency, and let's not pretend that the Flyers historic identity isn't tied to doing just that.

As we've learned over the years, that style of play typically does not bode too well in the modern NHL. In are defensemen like Shayne Gostisbehere -- good with the puck, fleet of foot and generally not all that punishing with the body. Gudas' style of play is supposed to be going the other way.

The thing about that Broad Street Bullies identity that this team has never been able to shed is that while those teams were brutally physical and completely intimidating, they were also really really skilled. And in that context is how I view Gudas as one of the more interesting players on the Flyers roster in 2015-16. You look at his attributes and you wouldn't expect him to be a key factor on this or any NHL blue line, and yet ... there he was, one of the Flyers' top defensemen a year ago.

Radko Gudas

Background:

Position D
Age 25 (6/5/1990)
Contract Status $3.35 million per year through 2019-20

2015-16 Regular Season Numbers:

Much more than just a big, physical bruiser

When you watch Gudas play, you might not necessarily come away thinking he's a positive asset on the ice. Sure, the occasional big hit can wake up an otherwise sleepy game and can absolutely be a real contribution in terms of making the other team think twice going into the corner.

But play-in, play-out, Gudas' skill set doesn't necessarily scream "TOP FOUR DEFENSEMAN." He's a little iffy when handling the puck. He commits turnovers and doesn't always feel all that comfortable in his own zone. He's not speedy and doesn't get up in transition quickly. His first pass doesn't exactly remind you of Chris Pronger. He doesn't really score. And he does sit near the top of the league in stats like hits and blocked shots. Those stats can certainly be framed as valuable, and at face value hitting and laying down in front of a shot is a valuable thing to do on the ice. But generally, they require a persistent lack of puck possession if you want to rank among the league's leaders, and gaining possession of the puck is basically the entire point of the job for NHL defensemen.

This is what makes Gudas so damn fascinating. Despite all of what I outlined above, he's a clear net-positive on the ice for the Flyers in terms of possession and helping to generate offense. Here's what Charlie wrote in an in-depth review of his year near the end of the regular season:

But this is not the most complete way to understand what Gudas brings to the table. When it comes to even strength shot creation and shot prevention, Radko Gudas is markedly better at the former. Despite his mediocre puck skills and lack of high-end skating speed, Gudas actually is better at creating offense than preventing it.

Gudas is in his fourth NHL season. In those four seasons, he posted a promising rookie year by possession metrics, fell to solidly negative in years two and three, and then took his massive step forward this season. But in all four years (even his bad ones), Gudas' teams created more shot attempts with him on the ice than with him on the bench. Essentially, Gudas makes his teams more efficient offensively when he plays hockey.

Gudas isn't a great player in his own zone, but he's been phenomenal in the offensive zone and the neutral zone -- areas that far outweigh his struggles in his own end.

He's actually the third-best defenseman in the entire NHL when it comes to generating shot attempts at even strength, as well. Gudas' 14.14 individual Corsi (total shot attempts taken by Gudas) per 60 ranks behind only Brent Burns and Johnny Boychuk, and just ahead of offensive weapons Erik Karlsson and Jake Muzzin.

When accounting for Gudas' ability to drive the puck into the offensive zone and then take lots of shots once the puck is there, it's obvious that he is improving his team's offensive efficiency the old-fashioned way -- by doing it himself.

Ultimately, Gudas has been effective in generating offense in part because he's taking shots and creating chances -- even if they don't go in the net -- on his own. In the neutral zone, he's effective at carrying the puck up himself. And he's been fantastic at bottling up opposing players before they get deep in his own end, the area of the ice where he's weakest.

When watching a game, we tend to notice the stark defensive weaknesses of defensemen more than we notice their subtle offensive contributions -- just as we tend to overlook the subtle defensive greatness of a forward like Sean Couturier because he doesn't score as much as we expect a top-six guy to score. That hurts Gudas' perception. But the reality is that he's one of the most valuable players on the Flyers' blueline, and if that continues for the next four years he will be a key asset when this team is hopefully competing for Stanley Cups.

(You should really go read Charlie's whole piece if you want the most in-depth look at Gudas' overall game, by the way.)

But what about those bad hits?

I was probably one of Gudas' most vocal critics a year ago, purely based on the several illegal hits he threw at opponents throughout the year. Deadspin at one point said that Gudas was "leaving a trail of bodies in his wake" ... and I mean, that's not wholly inaccurate.

Mika Zibanejad, Kyle Turris, Lucas Lessio and David Catenacci were all injured in some capacity by a big, borderline-if-not-illegal hit from Gudas in the regular season. Bobby Farnham of the Devils got clocked by one too but escaped injury.

Much like a Zac Rinaldo, players who make these sorts of hits a major part of their game walk a fine line every time they hit the ice. If they take a step back, it could alter the very foundation of what helps to make them a valuable player -- although unlike Rinaldo, Gudas clearly has a lot of hockey skill to contribute. But if they continue to deliver illegal hits, they risk putting their teams in rough positions on the penalty kill, or even worse, with suspensions.

A lot of Gudas' hits are pretty reprehensible. Here's what I wrote in February after the Farnham hit, which resulted in a match penalty for Gudas.

Not only is this type of play just objectively ugly and something Flyers fans should not support, you can also make the argument that when you continually do this stuff, the officials put a target on your back. Deservedly so, too. And that is going to hurt the Flyers in hockey games before long. They're lucky it didn't hurt them more last night.

Gudas was only suspended for the Zibanejad hit, but he's lucky he wasn't suspended for more. In total, his 116 penalty minutes on the season were second among defensemen and 10th in the NHL. (They were second on the team behind Wayne Simmonds.)

He's not quite at the level where these hits are hurting the team acutely, but the potential is still there for that to happen as his reputation as a player who "leaves a trail of bodies in his wake" grows. It's something he and the Flyers coaching staff need to be aware of.

Player Card (via hockeyviz.com):

gudas hockeyviz card

Neutral zone data via BSH's Charlie O'Connor; all other data via war-on-ice.com unless otherwise noted.