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How does Radko Gudas fit on a changing Flyers blue line?

In two years with the Flyers, Radko Gudas has emerged as a key cog on defense. How will his responsibilities change now that he’s one of the team’s vets?

Kate Frese / SB Nation

As the 2017-18 Flyers season draws near, we’ll be breaking down everyone we expect to make the roster, from the long-time vets to the new guys. For each player, we’ll ask three key questions about their season, and look at what their best- and worst-case scenarios are for the year.

When he was initially acquired in the early hours of March 2, 2015, the day of the 2014-15 NHL Trade Deadline, the guy who had just become the newest member of the Philadelphia Flyers was probably the least talked-about part of his own trade.

Radko Gudas, then a 24-year old Czech defenseman, had gone from being a top-4 defenseman with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2013-14 to a third-pair guy on the same team a year later to a player sidelined indefinitely with a knee injury to a player that, at the time, appeared a throw-in on a deadline deal that sent long-time Flyer Braydon Coburn to Tampa and a first- and third-round pick to the Flyers.

After missing the remainder of the season due to surgery on the aforementioned knee injury, Gudas was something of an afterthought on a Flyers defense that had several other established-if-unspectacular pieces in place. And after a rough first preseason with the Flyers — a preseason which, to be fair, was his first real hockey action in eight months — Gudas was a healthy scratch in his first game with the Flyers. At that point, it looked like the Flyers probably had just another third-pairing defenseman on their hands.

But that’s not how things ended up playing out.

In two seasons here, Gudas has emerged as a top-4 defenseman on the Flyers, both in role and in ability. Possession metrics, measures by which in Tampa Gudas was never more than “just fine” and was at times worse than that, had Gudas’ performance in 2015-16 as one of the best in the NHL among defensemen. The decision to protect him in this past June’s expansion draft was a no-brainer. And when Gudas was signed to a four-year deal worth $3.35 million per season against the cap last year, the general reaction from fans tended to be a positive one for a contract that could lock a top-4 defenseman in with the Flyers for the rest of his 20s at a very reasonable rate.

This coming season, Gudas will effectively become one of the elder statesmen of the Flyers’ blue line. Among all Flyers defensemen under contract, only 31-year-old Andrew MacDonald (whose birthday is today!) has played more NHL games than Gudas. And with a number of potential new faces on the unit, Gudas may have to wear a number of hats.

Gudas’ spot on this team, right now, seems like it should be as safe as ever. But what exactly the season has in store for him is anyone’s guess.

3 Big Questions: Radko Gudas

1. What will Gudas’ role be in a new, younger defense corps?

On defense this year, the Flyers figure to have two rookies (whichever ones end up getting chosen out of Samuel Morin, Robert Hagg, Travis Sanheim, and Phil Myers), two young defensemen with experience (Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov), and two legitimate NHL veterans (Gudas and MacDonald). Exactly how those players end up getting paired with one another is anyone’s guess, and there are a lot of ways that Gudas could end up being used in this lineup.

The team could opt to pair its two oldest NHL players with the two rookies, giving the young players a guy with experience to lean on a bit. This is essentially what they did with Andrew MacDonald over the past two seasons — he was largely stapled to Gostisbehere from the moment he returned to the NHL in February 2016, and he was almost exclusively partnered with Provorov from early December onwards this past season. That could be the plan for he and Gudas next year, as each could end up spending a lot of time with the team’s newest blueliners.

But is that the best plan given Gudas’ skillset? It may depend on exactly which defensemen get the nod to start the year with the team. If Morin and Hagg get the call, a pairing made up of one of them alongside Gudas may just not have enough puck-moving talent at the NHL level. If Sanheim or Myers makes the team, one of them could be a better fit with Gudas, who’s shown some ability to create offense on his own but still isn’t much of a passer.

NHL: Philadelphia Flyers at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

If Gudas isn’t paired with a rookie, the most likely combinations remaining involve him spending a lot of time with either Gostisbehere or Provorov. That would be a new look for the Flyers — outside of a handful of games with Provorov just after Thanksgiving last year, Gudas hasn’t spent any real time with either of those two. But it would be fun to see two of the Flyers’ three top NHL-level defensive talents playing on the same pair, and if the Flyers want to have one “veteran” pair take on the tough assignments (this would be much more likely were Gudas to be paired with Provorov than with Gostisbehere) while they let the two pairs with rookies on them ease into the NHL, that may be the best way to do it.

Regardless of who he’s playing with, though, how the Flyers plan to balance the need to play one of their better defensemen with the need to develop young talent is something they’ll have to figure out. Outside of Ivan Provorov, the Flyers’ coaches seemed to see basically every defenseman on the team last year as worthy of receiving a similar amount of ice time, which happens when your defense consists by and large of a bunch of guys with limitations.

But now there’s no Michael Del Zotto or Mark Streit — no guys that you can give ~19 minutes a night to and expect solid-if-unspectacular results. Those guys are being replaced by rookies, and by nature there’s a lot of variability in trying to project what a rookie will do.

It’s possible that, while guys like Morin, Hagg, or Sanheim get their feet under them, Gudas is asked to do even more than he has been in recent years. On the other hand, if any of those guys really get out to a hot start to their NHL careers, it wouldn’t at all be surprising if any increase in responsibility given to them comes at the expense of Gudas’ ice time. Radko Gudas could realistically serve almost any role on the Flyers’ defense this season, from top-pair/top-PK guy to veteran mentor to third-pair support piece. The wide range of potential outcomes is what makes the task of guessing what to expect from him so difficult.

2. Will Gudas’ strong on-ice differentials from the past two seasons continue?

In Dave Hakstol’s two years in charge of the Flyers, a number of key Flyers players have seen drop-offs in certain statistical measures. Claude Giroux is the most notable example, but Jakub Voracek had a somewhat uninspiring season this past year by the statistics, while Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn had serious problems at 5-on-5 for prolonged stretches in those two years as well.

But with the arguable exception of Sean Couturier, no one on the Flyers has seen their play turn in a positive direction quite like Gudas has.

In his first full year with the Flyers, Gudas quickly ascended from the role of a fringe/third-pair guy to that of a de-facto top-pair defenseman at even strength, mostly alongside Hakstol favorite Michael Del Zotto. And his actual on-ice performance was worthy of that kind of role: by most standard on-ice possession/play-driving metrics, Gudas was spectacular in the 2015-16 season. Furthermore, when Del Zotto went down for the season with a wrist injury in February, Gudas’ strong performance kept up, even alongside the likes of Brandon Manning and Evgeny Medvedev.

Radko Gudas 2015-16 5-on-5 Performance

Timeframe Games Played On-Ice Corsi For % On-Ice Corsi Relative
Timeframe Games Played On-Ice Corsi For % On-Ice Corsi Relative
Beginning to 2/13 48 52.07% 4.61%
2/14 to End 28 56.06% 6.00%

(Numbers above and elsewhere in this article via Natural Stat Trick except where noted otherwise.)

Gudas’ eye-popping numbers from last year didn’t carry over to the 2016-17 season at quite the same level, but given the amount of responsibility he was asked to take on, one could reasonably argue that his second season in orange and black was an even more impressive all-around season than his first. Gudas still led the team’s defensemen in standard possession metrics, both overall (53.71% Corsi For) and relative to his team (2.88% Corsi Rel). And that’s all despite leading the team’s defensemen in 5-on-5 TOI per game (16:47) and starting shifts in the defensive zone more frequently than any other Flyers defenseman.

He may not be the most talented defenseman on the Flyers — really, he may not even be close — but it’s tough to argue with the fact that no defenseman on the Flyers has done a better job keeping play moving in the right direction than Gudas has since he arrived here. And as Charlie O’Connor wrote here back in March of Gudas’ first season with the Flyers, he’s done it largely through his work in the offensive zone, contrary to the widely-held idea that Gudas is mostly a big, hulking, stay-at-home defenseman:

The general perception surrounding Radko Gudas is that of a defensively-oriented, physical player. There is evidence to support this description -- his high hit totals, low scoring numbers, and the fact that Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol uses him on the penalty kill and in late-game situations.

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.

At this point, we don’t have much of a reason to think that Gudas won’t continue to be a solid play-driver, which is why the aforementioned idea of pairing him with Provorov is one that could have so much upside on this team — if he’s doing what he’s done alongside Brandon Manning and Michael Del Zotto, what will he do with maybe the best defenseman on the team?

But at the same time, different pairings could certainly lead to different results. Gudas has mostly managed to avoid playing alongside Andrew MacDonald during his time here, and while the Flyers likely won’t pair their two veterans with one another, that would be an interesting test of just how good Gudas really is at pushing play forward. Similarly, a run with one of the rookies could provide a new challenge, albeit one with more long-term upside for the Flyers. In any case, Gudas’ 5-on-5 play has been a revelation, and they’re going to need it to continue again this year.

3. Can Gudas stay out of trouble again?

Ask a Flyers fan what they think of Radko Gudas, and they’ll probably tell you about the defenseman we’ve discussed so far in this piece: one that has reliably played a key role on an otherwise-suspect Flyers defense over the past two seasons and figures to be a key piece moving forward. Ask a fan of one of the other 30 fanbases in the NHL, though, and the first thing that probably comes to mind regarding Gudas is what he’s made news for outside of Philadelphia: a somewhat questionable disciplinary history.

In his two seasons with the Flyers, Gudas has been sat down by the Department of Player Safety twice — he received a three-game suspension in December 2015 for check to the head in Ottawa, and was nailed with a six-game timeout in October 2016 following an interference penalty in the Flyers’ final game of the preseason in Boston. Those are Gudas’ only two incidents that have led to suspension in his career, but some other hits that he’s thrown in games with the Flyers have led to majors, misconducts, and ejections. In fact, the hit that led to Gudas’ second suspension came just five days after a boarding major on New York’s Jimmy Vesey that garnered an ejection but no supplemental discipline.

Buffalo Sabres v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

But following that six-game extended vacation to start the season, Gudas — who by that point was surely being watched closely by the powers-that-be in the NHL — was about as well-behaved as could be expected. Gudas took three fighting majors and two misconducts (both of which were matched by an opponent on the ice), none of which actually put the Flyers at a disadvantage beyond the fact that they were without Gudas himself during those times. And plus, Gudas was able to do all of this without losing much of the physical intimidation that helps him succeed. Gudas threw a number of big hits this year, they just mostly weren’t ones that refs thought were illegal.

The hope here is that no longer will we have to worry about Gudas (who, remember, is a key contributor to this team and whose prolonged absence of any kind leaves the Flyers worse off) continuously being at risk of a lengthy supplemental discipline penalty.

If that does prove to be the case, the next challenge for Gudas is cutting down on minor penalties. Last season, he took minors at a more frequent rate than all but seven other NHL defensemen who played at least 600 total minutes (via Natural Stat Trick). But while there’s surely room for improvement from that level of misbehavior, significantly reducing Gudas’ penalty rate could be easier said than done.

By nature, sometimes a player who consistently plays as physical of a style as Gudas does is going to take penalties. And when you couple that with the track record Gudas has picked up, fair or not, some bad ones are going to be called on him. Such as this absurd “clipping” call on January 21, which gave the New Jersey Devils a man-advantage that changed that game:

Maybe, with the way he plays and with the reputation that he has, a high volume of penalty calls against is going to be a constant occupational hazard. Which only further stresses how crucial it is that Gudas continues to play on the right side of the line when it comes to his biggest hits, the way he did once the regular season got underway last year. Some penalties will always be a part of Gudas’ game, but overall improved discipline should hopefully, in time, lead to fewer reputation calls, which should mean more ice time for one of the Flyers’ better defensemen.

Worst-case scenario

Paired alongside one of the two rookies that make the Flyers, Gudas has a tough time replicating his positive on-ice performances from his first two years with the Flyers. His limitations with the puck on his stick spring up more this year, plaguing his performance in all three zones. All the while, Gudas seems to have trouble keeping himself out of, well, trouble, as he sees an uptick in penalties taken and ends up getting ejected from multiple games during the season. In sum, Gudas ends up looking less like the guy that was a revelation for the Flyers and more like the guy who slowly fell out of favor in Tampa before getting dealt out of town as a trade throw-in. The result is a third-pair guy who regularly finds himself up in the press box as the team looks to give his ice time to younger players.

Best-case scenario

While the rookies work to get their feet under them, Gudas calmly steps into a top-pair role alongside Provorov, and the Flyers quickly find success in the combination of arguably their most talented overall defenseman and one of their best 5-on-5 play-drivers. Gudas continues to post very strong possession metrics overall and relative to the team, and even gets some decent luck on those point shots he keeps firing off with reckless abandon and scores a few goals. Better still, Gudas is able to cut down a bit on the minor penalties and continue to stay off the radar of the Department of Player Safety. Success from young guys elsewhere in the lineup may catch more attention and will likely matter more in the long-run, but it’s the continued strong performance of Gudas that really pushes the Flyers forward in the short-term — all while the 27-year old very quietly makes a case that he should be considered a key part of this team’s long-term future, no matter who else is popping up on the blue line.

Previously in Philadelphia Flyers 2017-18 Season Previews: