Jiri Hudler: The Flames’ most important free agent signing

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?

Embrace it

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:

jirirookiewowy

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.

The guy

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.

  • mk

    I hate to be that guy (I do, really), but I was curious if Baertschi also the Hudler treatment. He did!

    Of the 746:19 mins that Sven played 5v5, Hudler was on for 251:59. That’s only less than Wideman @ 260:02, and more than Brodie @ 228:27 and Monahan @ 228:14. Interesting.

    [For reference, Hudler also shared 274:31 with one Roman Cervenka. :D]

  • Legend of Weevil

    Another Fantastic article. I think Hudler’s greatest impact to this can’t be measured in points or ice time. He’s been an excellent example and role model for Monahan and I think is a huge reason Monahan is as mature as he is right now.

  • Legend of Weevil

    Hurdler has been a key clog in the wheel that is for sure. Making the playoffs is the goal after that anything can happen look at LA there first cup win squeezed into the playoffs won the cup. I believe at that time they just fired there coach and hired Sutter. All the experts were calling for a rebuild in LA and now they have 2 cups to there credit.

    Out with the negative and in with the positive. Flames get in the playoffs anything can happen look at the record against the west. Not to shabby

  • The Last Big Bear

    Jiri Hudler has been nothing but clutch.

    He has done exactly what the Flames needed him to do, at every step along the way.

    Feaster had his moments. And waiting on the phone with Hudler’s agent on speed dial, to make him an offer literally the minute Hudler became a UFA, that was definitely one of them.

  • RKD

    I remember Kent Wilson writing and questioning how Hudler would fare without playing with guys like Datsyuk and Zetterberg. I think Hudler has played great, there may have been stretches in the past where we didn’t notice him as much. However, I still think he’s been one of the more consistent Flames. His skill level is elite, he’s not only improved his game but has made his linemates better showing he’s taken that next step. In 177 games with the Flames, Hudler has amassed 131 points. His ppg has seen a steady rise from the lockout season he was at 0.64ppg, last season 0.72ppg and already this season has risen to .85ppg.

    • Hudler has surprised me for sure. In the context of the time he was signed I was partially dubious because it seemed Feaster was signing Hudler to halt the downward spiral and keep the team competitive. My contention he wasn’t that level of player (few are).

      That said, he’s proven to be good value for the contract. I’m glad to be have been wrong about that.

  • The Real Slim Brodie

    This kind of makes me wonder how good sven would be if he had a mentor take him in and teach him through the ups and downs..instead of the tough love treatment..during Monohans first 9 games or more sven was a big reason he scored so much..then to everyone’s surprise he was sent down and monohans scoring stopped for a long stretch. Guess i have to change my name to inpourierwetrust or inbennettwetrust now

  • All's.Fair

    Hudler may be the second most important player on this team(behind Gio of course) This guy is a class act and there is no doubt that if it wasn’t for him Monahan and Gaudreau would not be as effective in their first seasons. When his contract is up web better sign him to another 3-4 year deal.

  • piscera.infada

    I never liked Hudler before he came to Calgary. I remember vocally advocating how much I disliked the signing when it happened. It was a lot of unfounded personal bias mixed with the fact that I thought Detroit’s system made him look better than he was.

    I was wrong in a very big way… Love that guy!

    • The Real Slim Brodie

      Wow props to you…..only a fellow flames fan could admit he was wrong about a move….i will do the same if sven tanks with his new team….one thing im happy about trade deadline is all day i expected to open my browser to see…..flames send draft pick to Toronto for former scoring star of the panthers………jokinen

  • SmellOfVictory

    His off ice contributions are worth twice that of his on ice contributions. I know Monahan had some real issues adjusting to life on his own in Calgary – so much so that his mom eventually moved out to help with the transition. Hudler was a huge help taking Sean under his wing.

    I also had a chance to sit behind the Flames bench at the last Canucks game and to watch Hudler interact with the media, the rookies and the junior hockey player that takes the pre-game skate was just awesome. He’s a class act and an invaluable part of the rebuild.

    Just one of the many intangibles that has escaped the Oilers rebuild.

  • Christian Roatis

    Was wary of the signing at first, love it now. Seems everyone that leaves Detroit has a proper foundation in place and finds success everywhere they go. Hudler and Val Filppula in Tampa just a few examples.

  • The Real Slim Brodie

    Interesting article.

    Now for a blast from the past by examining Kent Wilson’s August 8 2012 piece “The Gamble That is Jiri Hudler”:

    “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.

    (Comment: Hudler’s shooting percentage of 17.9% in 2012-2013 did dive back down to earth – to 15.6% in 2013-2014. Thankfully it has regressed back this season to 17.5%)

    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.

    (Comment: In 2012-2013 season Hudler scored 27 points in 42 games; this season 52 points in 61 games. However this is due to an unsustainable shooting percentage that will crash back down to earth)

    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.

    (Comment: Look at Arii’s charts about how our prospects fare with Hudler and exclaim “WOWY!”)

    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.”

    (Comment: Please see the headline of this article)

    • The Last Big Bear

      To be fair, I think if anyone thought Hudler would perform the way he has, ESPECIALLY Detroit, there would have been no hesitation to match Feaster’s $4m offer.

      Hudler was put in a difficult spot, and he raised his game in response.

      I think it’s safe to say Hudler WASN’T this good when Calgary got him.

  • I was initially skeptical of the signing (and man has Hudler ever stepped up!). However, I remember doing a sort of amateur WOWY at the time and finding that Val Filppula was the passenger on the Zetterberg – Filppula – Hudler line. Zetterberg, obviously, was driving the bus.

  • Canrock 78

    Great mentors need really good student . Sean and Johnny are very humble and I’m assuming wanting to learn. A cocky kid will always struggle to find a mentor.
    You can assign one but it rarly works.
    I don’t know if Sven fits the cocky kid model but I never seen anyone take him under their wing the way big ern and Jiri took some of the other rookies under theirs. Remember Jiri bringing Johnny pizza on hockey night in Canada, seems silly but it shows a bond. It is also why this team works so hard for each other.

  • NHL93

    I remember loving the Hudler acquisition a few years back.. and I remember this site telling me to not get too excited and that Hudler may fall flat on his face. That’s the reason I come here.. to get that other perspective. Keep up the good work FN. And no, Lambert does not offend me in any way. It’s free content about my favourite hockey team. And when you live thousands of miles from Hockey, it’s nice to visit everyday.

    Also, thanks for bringing Arii onboard.