We recall being in the Detroit Red Wings' dressing room during training camp in the fall of 2010 as coach Mike Babcock was joking about Jiri Hudler and what Babcock referred to as Hudler’s “Russian vacation.”
It turned out not to be all that funny, as Hudler, who defected from the Red Wings for a year in the Kontinental Hockey League after a dispute over an arbitration case while a restricted free agent, never really regained his favored-son status with the Wings.
He scored just 10 goals that first season back, less than half what he had tallied in his previous season in the NHL, and while he hit a career-high 25 goals last season for the Wings, it is telling that a team with loads of cap space that is looking for offensive help chose to let Hudler walk away to sign a four-year deal worth $16 million with the Calgary Flames on Monday.
Pending the landing place for Parise, we’ll see whether the Wings end up coming around to a guy such as Alexander Semin, who has far more upside in terms of offensive production but has all kinds of baggage linked to his compete level or lack thereof. If they go that route, perhaps they’ll be sorry they didn’t do more to keep Hudler, whom they drafted with the 58th overall pick in 2002.
Should that lack of interest have been a red flag to the Flames?
That’s a moot point now. The question moving forward is whether the Flames can coax more out of Hudler, 28, over the next four years to nudge themselves back into the playoff tournament, something that hasn’t happened for three straight years. Since the lockout, they have yet to advance beyond the first round, and, if you polled 100 NHL people right now, you’d be hard-pressed to find many who believe they’re capable of returning to said tournament next spring.
But GM Jay Feaster was ecstatic at the signing and pointed out Sunday that Hudler is a terrific five-on-five producer, netting 23 of 25 goals while at even strength. Feaster said Hudler was second only to league goal-scoring champ Steven Stamkos in five-on-five goals this past season.
Calgary ranked 25th in five-on-five scoring this past season and 24th in goals per game, so Feaster is looking for improvement on that side of the puck if the Flames are going to improve on last season's ninth-place finish.
“This is a great day,” Feaster said during a Monday afternoon conference call with Hudler.
Coach Bob Hartley -- who offered to drive to Montreal to meet with Hudler before the contract was signed -- has already indicated he will use Hudler on the power play and the penalty kill, and that Hudler will log top-six minutes for the Flames.
Does the increased opportunity suggest Hudler’s top end might exceed what he revealed in a more limited role in Detroit?
Feaster hopes so and figures the same dynamic will be at play as when he brought Fredrik Modin to Tampa from Toronto. Modin blossomed into a 30-goal scorer and an important member of the Lighting’s 2004 championship team.
Bumping up against the $70.2 million salary cap, the Flames don’t look to be making many more moves of significance; already their signings of Hudler and defenseman Dennis Wideman, whom they inked to a five-year deal worth $5.250 million annually before the start of free agency, have prompted ongoing skepticism about the path being charted by Feaster.
Instead of taking the traditional "blow it all to smithereens" route to rebuilding, Feaster has steadfastly refused to peel off valuable yet aging assets such as captain Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff in exchange for high draft picks and top prospects. Instead, he continues to plug in established pieces such as Mike Cammalleri, whom he added late last season from Montreal, and now Wideman and Hudler.
While it might not look like an attractive picture long term -- the Flames remain a team bereft of easily identifiable building-block young players coming through the system -- it’s easy to forget that the Flames were just five points out of eighth place when the dust settled this past spring.
That’s five points that separated the Flames from the eventual Stanley Cup champions from Los Angeles.
This isn’t to suggest the Flames had that kind of postseason potential, but the gap between being in and out was as slim as a few more Hudler goals, or a Wideman power-play marker or two (of course, given the way Wideman played in his own zone during the playoffs, the gap separating in and out could easily be more, but we digress).
Hartley, recently repatriated from Switzerland, will certainly have his work cut out for him, but he’s also a guy who is used to getting more from less, and maybe, just maybe, the Flames aren’t as far away as everybody thinks, and maybe, just maybe, Hudler will help them get just that much closer.