So, I'll repeat what we all know: Jiri Hudler has been worse than useless so far.
When Hudler first took the Wings to arbitration last season--thus causing the period of availability of prime second-line free agents to pass--and then gave the finger to the organization and headed to Russia, many of us were ticked off. When we heard he was on his way back this season--his KHL team having folded--the lion's share of us were happy to have him back regardless of the circumstances of his departure. After all, this guy was a great asset before, right? We saw how well he'd done in the KHL, right? Logically this meant he'd be even better this year than he was in '08 -'09, when he scored 23 goals and dished up 34 assists--right?
WRONG! Thus far in the season, Hudler has done nothing but prove himself the worst player on the roster. I don't think this assertion is disputable in any fashion, given his performance. In 27 games played, Hudler has one goal--this a very lucky one against Colorado--and five assists, only three of which were primary assists. Given how much he's being paid ($2.875m), this gives Hudler quite possibly the worst production-to-salary ratio of any scoring forward not named Brian Rolston.
Hudler's stats off the puck aren't any better. He has the worst +/- on the team, at -7. He has a team-worst giveaway-to-takeaway ratio, at 2:1 (only Todd Bertuzzi comes close, and this is due to his particular playstyle rather than any native irresponsibility and defensive ineptitude; indeed, Babcock has repeatedly praised Bert's defensive play this season). He's inept at face-offs, and so he hasn't taken any. He's tiny and easily bumped off the puck, and his skating speed is unspectacular. What am I trying to get across with these stats? They're intended to demonstrate that Hudler has borderline-zero talent that isn't directly on the offensive side of play. Of course, we knew this already; we were aware that Hudler couldn't check, couldn't play on the penalty kill and couldn't play a solid defensive game. This was fine, though, so long as he was offensively capable; he could be utilized as a role-player, as was successfully done during his last stint with the team.
This time around, however, it's not working that way.
The thing is that we all know Hudler has scrap and energy when he wants to. In his last stint with the Wings, that high-energy and scrappy style allowed him to produce despite his much below-average size and speed. He'd scramble all over the ice in order to get into position; he'd roar around the offensive zone with enthusiasm; and he'd give us that huge Hudler grin whenever he scored. Now that style is gone, and with it has gone his ability to score in the NHL. It has been argued by some that Hudler's time in the KHL--a league in which the players tend to play with a different style than in the NHL--led him to adopt a new way of play that worked in that league but is not working so well back in North America; they say that this perhaps accounts for Hudler's difficulties thus far. However, I find this theory hard to believe. If this were the trouble, then surely Hudler would have realized it by now. He had played in the NHL for three seasons; he spent only one in the KHL. Realizing the problem and adjusting back to an NHL-caliber playstyle would not take much brainpower.
Now, we've all seen players struggle. Some players go through bad spells. It happens to even the very best players in the league sometimes. However, most often those players are still giving their all, still putting forth maximum effort on the ice, and things eventually start to turn around for them; and in the meantime, at least we can see that the player is still trying his hardest. The most damning thing about Hudler these days is that he simply doesn't seem to care that he's playing poorly. He floats around the ice. He doesn't go into the corners for the puck. He doesn't go into contested areas of the ice. He allows himself to be bodied off the puck without a fight. In interviews, he gives the token "I'd like to be doing better", but he doesn't seem to be at all bothered by how little he's contributing to his team. Who knows? Maybe he's not concerned anymore, as he got paid in Russia ($5m, tax-free) and will be getting his salary in the NHL (5.75m over two years) regardless of how he plays.
Now, trading the guy isn't an option. It's true that Hudler has thus far displayed the one (and only one!) trait--lack of effort--that has gotten other Red Wings, such as Ville Leino and Jason Williams, traded over the last several seasons. However, he's currently a $2.875m hockey player with a one-dimensional (offensive) set of skills and an inability to score. This means that his trade value will be rock-bottom. Too, the cap space that could be obtained at this stage of the season by trading him for draft picks or putting him on waivers wouldn't be of much good to the Wings, as there are no attractive free agents on the market at this time. And there's still the hope that Hudler's game could come back. We all know that he has the talent and the capability to excel.
Whatever the case, I think it's time that Hudler spends a long, cold, harsh spell on the bench. Babcock has given Hudler many, many chances to excel this season. Hudler has been repeatedly been significant ice time. He has been given time on every line. He has been given power play time. He has been included in the roster at the expense of scratching such hardworking players as Drew Miller and Patrick Eaves. He has justified none of this, and indeed the team has often played better without Hudler in the lineup; the players who have replaced him are, through not very talented offensively, all responsible, reliable, gritty and hardworking--and tellingly, all of them, besides Draper (who has played in only one game four games), have significantly outproduced Hudler in offense. Worse, Hudler has still shown no inclination to give 100% effort on the ice. This I judge as a spit in the face of his coach, his team, and the entire Red Wings Nation. In light of this, and in light of the fact that in his time on the ice he often causes a net negative impact to the team, I suggest that it is time for Hudler to spend at least five straight games off the ice. Perhaps being plunged into irrelevance will prove a jolt to his system, and he will return with more spring to his step. At the very least, the team will be without his lazy ineptitude on the ice for that time.
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