It’s the little things that help make a team.
Say you’re a hockey player. You do well enough to get drafted. You aren’t a first round pick or a sure bet or anything like that, but you’re pretty decent, and an NHL team – a much revered one, for the record – is willing to take a chance on you. They even give you your first taste in the big show, even though it’s not much.
So you go to the minors and toil away for a couple of years. Between bus rides and smaller cities, you grow.
And then it happens: you make the NHL.
On a good team, too.
You may not get to be the guy, but you’re a guy. And the part when you win the Cup isn’t bad, either.
It gets to the point you even get to have your own contract dispute, but you come back soon enough, no harm, no foul.
You’re playing alongside legends. Some of the absolute best the world has ever had to offer, and you share a locker room with them; you’re one of the few to ever see them at their very best. One of the few to ever see them at their very worst. You’re a part of it all, and it’s pretty incredible.
You aren’t the guy, but you’ve gotten to the point where you’re a pretty meaningful part of the team. To the point where another team, one that also has some of the best the world has ever seen, also has championship aspirations, really wants you to come on board. Make the switch. It’s not that you’ve never played for another team in your life; it’s that at the highest level the world has to offer, you’ve only known one thing. Good players, good team, and your experiences with them have made you all the better.
So you take the other team’s offer, and the roof caves in pretty much immediately. There are a number of off-ice situations, including a lengthy lockout, to make your start with your new team be, well, terrible.
You don’t know anybody there.
You aren’t winning.
You aren’t going to make the playoffs. (You always make the playoffs.)
All the big name players are leaving, right at the same time you signed a commitment to try and help them get a Cup.
The R-word comes up. Rebuild. Suddenly your teammates are five, 10 years younger than you.
You’ve become the guy.
How do you respond?
I like to think of the Flames’ rebuild beginning with the Jarome Iginla trade, but officially kicking in when Sean Monahan was drafted. It was bittersweet: the Flames’ biggest need for the longest time was a number one centre for Iginla, and it wasn’t until after he was gone that they may have finally acquired him, even if he was probably still a few years in the making.
Already, Monahan was a very, very, very important part of the Calgary Flames.
In addition to being one of his first ever linemates, Hudler went the extra step, got him out of the hotel he was living in during his nine-game tryout, and brought him home. Monahan made league-wide rumbles during his first nine games as a point-per-game rookie. He wasn’t the only one, though; Hudler had points in nine straight to start his own season.
Monahan’s NHL career – which, with each passing day, is looking like it’s going to be more and more incredible – began with Hudler around him at pretty much all times. Monahan’s rookie season saw Hudler be his second most common linemate, and vice versa.
So it was no surprise when just a year later, Johnny Gaudreau ended up alongside Hudler, too. (Of Gaudreau’s 46 points this season to date, Hudler has played a hand in 22 of them: nearly half.) Add Monahan into the mix, and you’ve got one of the best possible Flames line combinations, consisting of a couple of kids in their early 20s and a winger 10 years older than them.
In fact, after Gaudreau and Monahan, Hudler’s most common linemates this season – a season that has featured oh so many rookie recalls – are Markus Granlund and Josh Jooris, one of whom came out of nowhere to randomly and awesomely become a full time NHLer.
Does Monahan look to become a legitimate number one centre in the NHL this quickly without Hudler flanking him most frequently in his first two seasons? Does Gaudreau wow the entire league without being joined at Hudler’s hip? Does Jooris look as good as he does without centring Hudler while the mostly-graduated Monahan handled the hardest minutes in Mikael Backlund’s absence?
Those aren’t questions we’re ever going to know the answer to, but we do know one thing for sure: two rookies and one sophomore are spending considerable time with Jiri Hudler, and two rookies and one sophomore are looking pretty great. There’s budding but not-quite-there-yet NHLer Markus Granlund to consider, as well:
Monahan’s numbers are from his rookie season, when he and Hudler played 363:30 together. Gaudreau, Jooris, and Granlund’s numbers from this season. They have played 558:17, 169:55, and 181:17 with Hudler, respectively. Hudler has spent substantial time with and helped all of them.
Of course, it’s not just enough to have good character. There are, after all, plenty of NHLers out there who are lauded for their character and not much else, which is usually an indication that they aren’t very good at actual hockey.
Jarome Iginla led the Flames in scoring for 11 straight years. Then he was traded, and in a disastrous lockout season, Mike Cammalleri ended up taking over.
Given a full season, Hudler became the Flames’ new scoring leader, and it’s looking like he’ll be the first Flame since Iggy to have that honour in consecutive seasons.
In his contract year, Hudler posted 25 goals (a career high) and 50 points (the second time he reached that marker). His best numbers with the Red Wings ended up being 57 points in 2008-09, a career high that still stands today, and one that will probably be broken this season.
With the Flames, Hudler is a top line player. He has back-to-back 50 point seasons in Calgary. With 18 games left in this NHL season, and 21 goals and 52 points already put up, it’s looking increasingly likely he’ll set new career highs this year, all while primarily playing with a couple of kids.
It helps that these kids are skilled, but while we wait for them to become what we know they can be, Hudler is the Flames’ driving offensive force.
He isn’t on a good team, and he isn’t on a team that’s about to contend for a championship any time soon. His contract is up after next season. But he’s the kind of player who ages well. He’ll decline as his proteges grow, but he’ll probably be able to keep up with them well enough. And he’s definitely going to be useful for quite a few years yet, perhaps even still when the Flames become a true contender.
Hudler wasn’t able to help Iginla get a Cup, but his being on the ground floor of the Flames’ rebuild has ended up being an ideal situation. Maybe he’ll be able to help Monahan, Gaudreau, and whatever other kids come his way win one instead.
Maybe now, he isn’t just playing alongside potential legends: he’s on the ground floor of making sure that’s what they become.