A few days ago, I made a joking reference to answering a question about the upcoming NHL season with a long-winded soliloquy to Radko Gudas. Most people who have spent more than five minutes with me or reading my stuff are aware of my appreciation for Gudas as a player and as a person. Although I'm going to miss him in Syracuse this upcoming season, I'm thrilled at the opportunity he has to make his mark in Tampa, and I'm confident he's going to impress a lot of people (if he hasn't already).
The question was this: Who is the X-Factor on this team, that could push the squad into contention for a playoff spot? My answer was not a mushy Shakespearean sonnet as I originally planned -- I've never been any good at writing couplets -- but one John actually felt could make a decent post with some tweaking. I think we were both surprised by that one. Maybe hanging around here has finally had a positive influence?
All joking aside, I do truly feel that Gudas will be a player who will strongly influence Tampa Bay's chances at making the post-season this year. He's an amazing defenseman, but he's also a positive force in the locker room, the kind of force that Lightning coach Jon Cooper has already shown he appreciates and knows how to use. He's coached Gudas for the better part of three AHL seasons (two full season with Norfolk and a partial season with Syracuse), and coached Gudas at the NHL level at the end of this past season. He knows what Gudas can bring to the ice and to his locker room, and I know that he will look at The Beard as a positive this season.
Lightning fans should, too.
Gudas is a really interesting defenseman because blue-liners who do their job right -- and aren't of the offensive variety -- are usually invisible, lurking in the background for their team, taking care of business without drawing attention to the way they sacrifice their bodies for the job. Gudas is not, in any way, an invisible defenseman, which is interesting because he also isn't particularly offensively gifted. In 206 AHL games, he scored 15 times. His two playoff markers this past season with Syracuse were the most of his AHL career. In 22 games with the Lightning, he had two goals. He has a blistering shot and can score, but his game is definitely more of the rough-and-tumble, physical, body-smashing type that gets and holds people's attention.
It's the kind of game he plays that makes Gudas such a large asset to a team. Gudas was, without a doubt, one of the core players of the Syracuse Crunch last season. He was a fan favorite, of course, his beard and willingness to let the Crunch exploit it rather cemented his hold there. But he was also a valued teammate and friend to everyone on the bench, and tended to change the course of key games just by being himself and sticking up for his teammates. Syracuse head coach Rob Zettler also knew Gudas' value and wasn't afraid to place an emphasis on it. This wasn't any more clear than during the Calder Cup Finals.
The Crunch made the finals, but were forced to play their first four games without Gudas. He sustained an MCL injury in the final period of the AHL Eastern Conference Finals. The lack of Gudas on the ice wasn't the only reason the Crunch struggled, but it was clear that there was something missing in the first three games of the finals. The Crunch went down into a 3-0 hole, losing their first two games at home and their first game in Grand Rapids. However, the more they floundered, the more rumors started swirling about Gudas coming back. Even though Gudas didn't play, Syracuse managed to battle back with winning games four and five, forcing a game six.
Leading up to both games five and six, there was talk that Gudas was ready to go but that he was being held out as a precaution. This was an incredible exaggeration: Gudas' injury should have kept him off the ice for another 3-4 weeks, not another few days. But when the Crunch took the ice for that game 6 at home and Gudas lead his team out onto that glistening surface, the atmosphere and the hope in the Onondaga County War Memorial built to an almost unbearable level. It was an incredible feeling, brought on mostly by Gudas being back out there on the ice. You could see a difference in the players, in the fans. The swagger was back.
There's just something about that bearded grin that makes you believe it'll all turn out.
Unfortunately, what the fans didn't know at the time was that Gudas' injury prevented him from skating backwards. As that rendered him ineffective at defense, he was moved to forward so that he could play that night. Not wanting to push their luck further, Zettler knew he had to use Gudas sparingly. The defenseman-turned-forward only skated a few shifts with the fourth line that night, although his physical presence still appeared to bolster the team and encouraged the fans.
The Crunch ultimately lost that game and, which conceded the series and the 2013 Calder Cup to Grand Rapids. There's little doubt in my mind that things would have turned out differently for the Crunch had Gudas been 100%. However, the fact that the coaching staff -- and Gudas himself -- wanted him out there bad enough to switch his position says much.
Gudas is the kind of player who makes a lot of enemies -- and already has at this level -- but who will absolutely sacrifice it all for his team. He's an invaluable locker room presence and I believe he'll be someone who has the potential to push this team into playoff contention. Lightning fans have every reason to trust in The Beard.