Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Wings Playoffs Awards: Blackest Ace

My pick for the player who really could have single-handedly led the Red Wings to the Cup if only he'd just gotten more ice time, goshdarnit:

Jiri Hudler

Jiri Hudler had a legion of enemies by halfway through the season, led by A2Y, and including myself. By Christmas Jiri'd shown us nothing and I was ready get rid of him and Jason Williams for Bill Guerin (1 outta 3 ain't bad...). But with the injury to Tomas "Koko" Kopecky, Hudler was in every game (if not for long) for quite a long stretch (he may have played every game until the playoffs, in fact... can't quite remember).

It was in this period that Hudler scored 11 goals and lit the imagination of many a Red Wing. The next Datsyuk, surely. And I'll admit, I grew fond of the guy very quickly as well. Into the playoffs we charged, and we all bemoaned that young Jiri would get the shaft in lieu of the useless Mikael Samuelsson. And sure enough, when Bert returned from his concussion, Jiri was given the Black Ace of Death, and only saw one game after.

From my tone you might guess that I wasn't as crazy about throwing Hudler in the lineup ahead of Samuelsson (who had put it together by the Anaheim series), or necessarily Kopecky (whose superior physical play and defensive capability cannot be doubted). But hindsight, I hear, is superior to normal sight, and so, I'll pose one question. What if Hudler *had* been put in against Anaheim? Here are the Wings' 12th forward numbers for TOI against Anaheim.

G1 K. Calder: 4:01
G2 K. Calder: 3:56
G3 T. Kopecky: 7:05
G4 T. Kopecky: 4:03
G5 T. Kopecky: 2:53
G6 T. Kopecky: 0:32

There was a lot of speculation that Babcock could at least throw Hudler out there for home games, where he could protect Hudler against unfavorable matchups. Take a look at G5, where Kopecky played just 2:53. Those are minutes Hudler could have managed. Now you say Hudler is weaker defensively and physically - so why not let the kid get all his minutes on the PP? He could have served as simply a PP specialist. And for a team with such power play problems, Hudler could have (maaaybe) provided a spark.

As for this upcoming season, despite having played his way into many fans' hearts this last season, Hudler may be the odd-man out next season. Take a look at the Wings currently under contract (organized into potential lines):


Now this is if the Wings choose not to re-sign Lang, Calder, OR Bert. Unlikely they do that and also choose not to go after any FAs. If Bert comes back and the Wings otherwise stand pat, you have Kopecky, Grigorenko, and Hudler fighting it out for two spots.

But suppose the Wings bring back Bert but also go for someone like Ryan Smyth, or perhaps more realistically, Slava "Baby Bear" Kozlov. Then you've got three guys and two spots, one of which is the 13th forward position. And while Hudler, really, has proved more than either Kopecky or Grigorenko, there are indications that he is third out of three. Consider that Mike Babcock raves about Kopecky's size and physicality, and also thinks he can score goals. Then consider Ken Holland giving the Slovak center a two-year contract extension. And Grigorenko? While I would like to see him get a year in GR to adjust to the North American game, the provision in his contract which allows him to return to Russia if he spends three weeks in the minors makes it seem to me that the Wings think he will earn a roster spot and regular playing time.

Looks like Jiri, an RFA, may be fighting an uphill battle. The Wings may shop the diminutive winger. But then again, if he goes in and plays well in training camp, too many good players isn't a bad thing. I expect he'll get a nominal fee (600K) and a one-year deal from Kenny, if he isn't traded.