Selected in the third round in 2010, 66th overall, Radko Gudas was always expected to add a needed element of physicality to the Tampa Bay Lightning farm and, eventually, the NHL club.
After racking up 151 penalty minutes in 65 games played in the WHL with the Everett Silvertips in 2009-10, Gudas proved in North America what the scouts had always said about him: he was a strong, physical, net-front clearing defenseman that would one day compliment the more finesse puckhandlers the Lightning have employed on the blue line in Steve Yzerman's tenure as general manager.
Tampa Bay has got all that in spades in his two years with the club, first in a 22-game stint on the bottom pair with Keith Aulie in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign and then as a regular in the top-4 alongside Matt Carle in 2013-14.
Here's how the panel ranked Gudas after his sophomore NHL season:
|Kyle Alexander||John Fontana||Clare Austin||Mike Gallimore||Clark Brooks|
Last Year's Rank: 4
That's a significant fall for the now 24-year old defenseman, who was just behind the team's elite under-25 talent a year ago on this list. So why the big fall?
Let's rewind a bit first -- the high ranking in last year's list came partly after what was an outstanding showing in a small NHL sample in 2012-13. Gudas played just over 344 5v5 minutes across 22 games in that season (barely more than Brian Lee -- you remember him, right? No?) More than half of that time was spent on the third pair next to big Keith Aulie, with the remaining time on ice split fairly evenly between Victor Hedman, Matt Carle, and Eric Brewer.
That time with Keith Aulie revealed a once-hidden talent Gudas possessed, that perhaps only a few who had watched him closely in the AHL had noticed -- he's a lot more than just a bruising, hit-first defenseman. He's an underrated puckhandler and passer and the Lightning dominated lower competition when Gudas/Aulie were on the ice -- as the bottom pairing, they got a light load of 5v5 minutes and fairly easy assignments, which is typical for a third pair. But they were dynamite in those minutes, scoring 69.2% of all 5v5 goals and controlling 55.7% of all 5v5 shot attempts. So while Gudas only scored 3 points himself and ended up a +3 as a rookie, the on-ice results were palpable -- Gudas played well and the Lightning played well when he was on the ice.
The decision over the course of the next offseason, then, was an easy one to predict. Gudas excelled with easy assignments and light 5v5 minutes, and with Eric Brewer aging fast and needing a respite from the load he's been asked to carry with the Lightning since coming over in a trade from the St. Louis Blues, slotting Brewer down a pair (and back to the left side) and moving Gudas up with Carle made sense. You get the classic defense pair that every fan craves (puck mover/stay-at-home) and you reward Gudas for a job well done as a rookie. Everything is roses and rainbows, right?
Pinpointing exactly what went wrong with Radko Gudas and Matt Carle as a pair in 2013-14 is a subject for another post, but suffice to say that they got their lunch handed to them on a regular basis. They were asked to handle fairly tough assignments, getting the bulk of defensive zone work behind the Lightning bottom-6 and against tougher competition; but they were brutal in those tough minutes. It freed up Victor Hedman and Sami Salo to run rampant offensively, but the team might have been better off overall by breaking up what was a mismatched pairing from the get-go.
Gudas and Carle rarely appeared in sync; breakouts were hard to lead, D-to-D passes seemed forced, and they always ended up chasing for long stretches in their own zone. The on-ice results truly emphasize how Gudas/Carle was the weakest link for the Lightning, as they had the worst puck possession results of any regular Lightning defense pair and were routinely outshot and outchanced.
This isn't to say that all is lost, however; Gudas has established himself as a very effective NHLer, but his one-year audition in the top-4 simply did not go as well. It might have been too much too fast, it might be chemistry with Carle, or something else entirely, but Carle is almost certainly staying in the top-4 which means the best option moving forward is to not play Gudas there any more. Fewer 5v5 minutes next to Eric Brewer on a third pair should see similar productive results that Gudas saw with Keith Aulie in 2012-13; both guys are physical but reliable and will likely play together on the penalty kill unit anyways. Just as a lesser 5v5 load for Brewer helped him last year, the same for Gudas (and playing them together) should see the Lightning come out ahead. There will be some obvious concerns with footspeed and defending the rush, but adept usage from second-year head coach Jon Cooper should keep them out of too many dangerous situations and in a position to push play forward.