When the Red Wings brought forward Jiri Hudler back after a one-year exile to Russia, it was assumed that the diminutive Czech would simply pick back up from where he left off and start pumping goals into enemy nets.
It was assumed that Hudler would be a key “acquisition” (the Red Wings never really lost his rights) and his offense injected into an already formidable lineup would make the Wings, once again, Stanley Cup contenders in the most serious of ways.
It was assumed that Hudler might even be better than before he left, coming back to North America with an even greater appreciation for how good he had it in the NHL.
For the better part of half of this season, the assumptions were wrong.
You know what can happen when you assume.
Hudler was the magician who reached up his sleeve and pulled out nothing but lint. He was a ying without a yang. The emperor had no clothes.
Goal scorers, and Hudler is certainly one, don’t know what to do with themselves when the pucks don’t find the net. The hockey scorer is the baseball slugger. And Hudler, for about 50 games, was popping up pitches that he normally swats into the seats.
Then sports’ vicious cycle kicked in: the harder he tried, the worse Hudler became.
He was benched. He was passed from line to line, like a stale bag of chips. Nothing worked.
Was some of it bad “puck luck,” as the hockey people like to say? Perhaps, but Hudler was not only not scoring goals, he didn’t seem to have all that many good chances to score, either.
The trade deadline has come and gone, and the Red Wings predictably passed, having little money to spend and not wanting to carve into their NHL roster.
Besides, observers said, the team was getting healthy. Mike Modano just returned Saturday after a three-month absence. Brad Stuart, Danny Cleary, Tomas Holmstrom, Pavel Datsyuk and Val Filppula have all been re-inserted into the lineup after recovering from injuries.
But the Red Wings have made another “acquisition” at the deadline.
Jiri Hudler is warming up.
The puck is starting to go in off Hudler’s stick once again. When he’s not scoring, he’s on the ice when his teammates do, and often his name is in the parentheses on the scoresheet as one of the assisting players.
Hudler was, for all intents and purposes, absent for 50 games. He was hiding in plain sight on the ice, skating his 45 seconds every shift and posting goose egg after goose egg.
Fortunately, the Red Wings have been so good this season that Hudler’s vanishing act was more of a nuisance than a crisis. It almost became, “Well, if he scores, great. If not, well, look at our record!”
Yet it’s clear that as good as they’ve been, the Red Wings are much better with a Jiri Hudler who is contributing offensively.
Goal scorers in hockey rarely stop scoring altogether. Rather, they pause for extended periods, at worst. Then they’re back on a tear before you can blink.
Hudler stopped altogether. He was Miguel Cabrera swinging at whiffle balls.
Bit that bad stretch seems to be behind Hudler, and at just the right time, to boot.
The Wings will take it.