The Gamble That is Jiri Hudler

 

 

The Detroit Red Wings bled a lot of talent this summer: Niklas Lidstrom retired, Brad Stuart was traded and Tomas Holmstrom is likely to pull the chute on his long career as well.

Which is why its surpising to see Holland and company let the 28-year old Jiri Hudler walk after a career high 25-goal season. Not only that, Hulder was the Red Wings 5th highest scorer last year with 50-points, well clear of 6th placed Todd Bertuzzi at 38. Notably, money wasn’t really an issue in this instance – the Wings have about $14M in cap space and Hudler’s contract with the Flames was relatively modest by UFA frenzy standards: $4M/year for four years.

So what the hell? On one hand, it’s possible the Wings had other targets in their sites when free agency broke in July and simply neglected Hudler to the degree that he sought out other options. On the other hand, digging through his underlying numbers suggests to me the team may not have trusted Hudler’s output last year – at least not as truly indicative of the player and his value to the club.

I don’t know how far the Wings are into advanced stats, but I’m guessing there are at least two types of league creatures who can instinctively sense when a players numbers are "over his head" without even looking at the numbers: competent general managers and beady-eyed agents. For opposing reasons, naturally. 

Detroit know Hudler well. Despite his dalliance with the KHL back in 2009-10, he was born and bred a Red Wing, so was a known commodity to Holland and Babcock. And it may very well be that familiarity bred contempt.

Gimme Shelter 

 

The first notable red mark against Hudler is the fact he has routinely been on of the most sheltered forwards on the Detroit Red Wings. Last season was actually some of the toughest minutes he’s faced in years with the 7th highest competition amongst forwards and a zone start ratio of 55.8%.

That bears repeating – those are the toughest minutes Hudler has seen in Detroit.

To put that in perspective a bit, the Flames only had two players with a zone start ratio above 50% last season: Mike Cammalleri at 52% (no doubt because he played part of the year in Montreal) and Roman Horak at about a 50/50. Of course, starting in the offensive zone more often tilts, the ice in favor of the player in question, making it more likely he will get shots/goals for and less likely for shots/goals against. It’s easier to run down a hill rather than up it aferall.

Things were easier for Jiri in 2010-11: his offensive zone start ratio was 57.3% (second highest on the team) and he faced just 8th highest quality of competition. The only guys who saw lesser lights on Detroit that year were fourth liners like Mike Modano, Patrick Eaves and Justin Abdelkader.

Circumstances were even softer for Hudler back in 2008-09 before he bolted for Russia: his ZS was an eye-popping 63.6% (by far the highest on the team) and once again his quality of competition rank was 8th. Not surprisingly, Hudler set a career high for shots on goal (155) and points (57) that season. 

If we take one more step back in time, we see that 2008-09 wasn’t Hudler’s high water mark in terms of easy sledding. In 2007-08, the Wings treated him like a forward version of Anton Babchuk: a ZS of 67.9 (!!) and the lowest quality of competition outside of goon Aaron Downey. Hudler was a sophomore in the league that year and the Wings can afford to build glittering cages around their more fragile players because of the quality of the rest of the club, but few players see that sort of coddling at any point in their careers.

Even though things have gotten a bit tougher for the Czech native since then, he never took the big step forward from "soft minutes support guy" to "legit top-six forward". Despite consistently being fed the opposition’s soft underbelly, Hudler never really put up either notable couting numbers nor praise worthy possession rates. On Detroit, Hudler has consistently been lower-middle class when it comes to corsi – even in 2008-09 with a team high zone start of 63.6%, his raw possession rate was good for just 7th on the team.   

This is likely one of the big reasons the Wings didn’t prioritize re-signing Hudler – given his circumstances and results, his contributions at even strength are eminently replaceable. It’s also the reason Flames management and fans should be nervous about the erstwhile Wing – his toughest season to date (ast year) would represent some of the easiest minutes for any Flames skater since about 2008-09. Calgary has no Datsyuks, Zetterbergs, Hossas or Lidstroms. Heck, they don’t even have a Franzen at this point, so everyone this side of Tim Jackman is exposed to much harsher elements.

Rolling Sevens

 

Moving from under the Wings warm, protective membrane isn’t the only concern for Hudler. Last year, his relatively decent output was built on the dual unsustainable pillars of a high personal shooting percentage and a high on-ice SH%. 

Hudler has never been a high volume shooter in the league. As mentioned, his career best is just 155, or 1.89 shots per game. Last year he dipped to 127 (or 1.57 shots per game), but nevertheless managed 25 goals thanks to a sky high 19.7 SH%. That’s well clear of an established career average of about 13%, so there’s no doubt he’s in line for regression sooner rather than later.

In addition, the pucks went in while Hudler was on the ice at a ridiculously good rate last season. Part of that was probably his own shooting luck, but either way an 11.17 on-ice SH% is similarly unsustainable (14th highest in NHL amongst regular forwards), particularly for a player of Hudler’s caliber. There are some elite guys who can raise the on-ice shooting of everyone around them by a percentage or two, but for everyone else it’s just the wild swings of variance. 

We can safely put Hudler in the "everyone else" category, seeing as his on-ice SH% was around 7% just one year prior. The good bet is the frequency of his own shots going in and the amount the puck goes in general while he’s skating both take a dive back down to earth going forward.

Conclusion

Here’s what we can reasonably assume about Hudler given the above: he’s going to face tougher competition in Calgary and he’s going to start less often in offensive zone at even strength. He’s therefore less likely to generate as many shots on net while the team is less likely to gets shots for while hes on the ice (and to get more shots against). In addition, it’s a good bet the puck is going to go in less frequently for him and the team in general.

The change in circumstances and pending regression to the mean are bound to get Hudler coming and going. Both the volume of shots and frequency of goals are likely to be shaved back, which combined would constitute a big dip in production. For example, with a career norm SH% of 13% last year, Hudler’s goal total goes from 25 to 16-17 and that’s assuming a stable shot rate. We’ll take a deeper look at his expected output in a reasonable expectations posts later this summer.

While production isn’t always the full measure of a player, the problem is Hudler doesn’t really bring much else to the table: he doesn’t drive possession, he’s not going to suppress the other team’s big guns and he doesn’t kill penalties.

Flames management made noises about Hudler getting more opportunity and ice time in Calgary when he was signed, which may be what they’re betting on to at least sustain his numbers. He averaged about 15:40 in total ice time last year, with about 2:14 of that coming on the PP. Overall, that was good for 5th amongst regular Detroit forwards, so I’m not sure how much room there is for an increase as a Flame. If he sticks in the top-6, then a modest bump to 16:00-17:00 minutes or so at ES isn’t out of the question. He’ll have to usurp one of Iginla or Tanguay from the top PP unit to get a meaningful increase at 5on4 though, which is unlikely –  Hudler’s production rate with the man advantage has pretty much always been just okay. 

Overall, there are a lot of arrows pointing in the wrong direction for Hudler and the Calgary Flames. The club didn’t exactly break the bank to sign him and they desperately needed an NHLer to fill the void on the right side below Jarome Iginla. Still, there’s a non-trivial chance Hudler becomes another Stajan-like disappointment.

 

  • I find it odd that Zetterberg’s name only came up once, in passing, in this article. The soft minutes and frequently starting in the O-zone are certainly one way to pad your stats, but so is playing with the Datsyuks and the Zetterbergs. Hank Zetterberg is a way underrated player (yeah, I said it) and an assist machine, and I would stress that he is a large reason that Hudler got those points.

    I would hate for Hudler to come here and fall off the face of the Earth, but if the Red Wings were unwilling to give him more money to play alongside Zetterberg again then… well… Flames may get burned.

    Unless Hudler/Cervenka completely destroy the competition. Make your top lines Tanguay-Cammy-Iginla and GlenX-Cervenka-Hudler, give them all 50%+ O-zone starts, and then bury the other two lines.

    • Not sure Hudler played a lot with those guys over most of his career at ES – since they were typically taking on the best of the best for DET.

      You’re right though, last year Hudler did see a lot of time with Zetterberg. As you say, Hank is one of the best in the biz.

      As for giving both top two lines lots of o-zone starts – it won’t be possible unless they are capable of driving play this year. There are only so many o-zone starts to go around and the more time the puck spends in the offensive zone, the more o-zone faceoffs there are. Poor possession teams take a lot more d-zone draws as a result, making it hard to give more than one or two guys a ZS boost. That’s why the Flames only had two guys north of 50% last year, while virtually the entire DET team were above 52%.

      Tach brought this up in the comments last year, but when a club is shot poor/possession poor, the coach can only tilt the ice so much via certain tactics. At some point, you need the horses or else your options and hopes for success are limited.

  • A high ZS doesn’t necessarily mean “coddling”. I call it putting the player in the position to succeed given his talents.

    Was Hudler brought here to play D as a forward? No. Was he brought here to score? Yes. Was he brought here to score on the PP? Absolutely Yes. We can only call it coddling if he continues to be put in positions to succeed at what he’s good at when he’s not succeeding.

    Lots of guys around here (including KW, IIRC) lamented Brent Sutter’s refusal to give certain guys the Sedin ZS treatment last year. Management is, by bringing in guys like Hudler, making a move in the Vigneault direction. (See Hartley, Bob, as well.) It makes no sense to want the team to be coached like the Canucks then criticize bringing in the players to do it.

    Is Hudler a Sedin? Hell no. Is Hudler a player that can and should be deployed in a Sedin-like manner? Absolutely.

    • True, but Hudlers results suggest he’s only useful in those situations, which means he needs to have the high ground to succeed. It was the same warnings analysts gave to any one who signed Ville Leino last summer. The Flames already had players who need better circumstances to succeed. That list starts with Jarome Iginla at this point in his career. So if they acquired Hudler to give him the soft underbelly, that just means another season of Jarome getting beat up in a PvP type role.

      The Sedins crush the opposition with their minutes. And they are deployed like that because the team has players like Kesler/Malhotra elsewhere in the lineup. I thought Sutter could have tried to work harder to give some of his scorers the high ground at the time, but ultimately he was constrained by the composition of the roster.

      So, in short, if you put Hudler in a position to succeed, it just means you’re going to have to feed someone else to the wolves on this club. What the Flames really need is someone who can survive or excel in that particular role.

  • Bean-counting cowboy

    A bandaid when you really require surgery. Surgery hurts more and takes longer to recover from, but it adresses the root issue. If you wait to long to have surgery, you will continue to have issues and risk further problems. The doctor’s advice is clear, and everyone knows it, however the patient chooses to ingore it.

    Mr. Hudler will join the Amonte, McCarty, Bertizzi, Kotalik, Hagman and Stajan club. Good numbers elsewhere then Flameout here. With all due respect to Jiri, history will repeat with any “bandaid of this type.

  • Bean-counting cowboy

    I don’t think we need to be too worried. I mean what has past experience shown us? It’s not like other players coming to Calgary from other markets have seen their production dip 🙂

  • Austin L

    That last sentence scares the crap out of me….. I’m sort of expecting him to hit at least 40 points, I’d rather take 50, but that likely won’t happen…

    • Stajan is definitely a worse case scenario – his output dipped in part because he disappointed, but also in part because Sutter couldn’t stand him and decided to bury him at the bottom end of the roster.

      If Hudler’s ice time stays the same or increases, he’s unlikely to completely fall off the map in the same matter.