"Everyone is looking at me right now like I'm the worst piece of [bleep] out there,'' Radko Gudas was saying at his dressing-room stall recently, and this was after his oft-tortured coach had lauded his two previous days of inspired practice.
But it will take more than a couple of practices for the Flyers defenseman to regain the worth, the promise, that once compelled Paul Holmgren to trade for him. Gudas is coming off a season that began, for him, with such promise, his early effectively aggressive play dissolving via yet another incident in which he, in his own words, "crossed that line.''
To the 28-year-old Gudas, that line has been receding for much of his career, concerns about safety and CTE and, yes, league-crippling lawsuits pushing it further and further away from the fear-inducing edge that has in the past made him effective, and made him millions.
A healthy chunk of those millions have been forfeited through fines and suspension over the last few years, the $669,651 he has lost dwarfed only by the cool million habitual Bruins bad boy Brad Marchand has surrendered for kicking, elbowing, punching – he was even licking people at times.
Marchand is also a habitual goal scorer, though, and an incredibly clutch one. He has won more big games for the Bruins than cost them over his nine-year career. The balance sheet for Gudas is less forgiving, especially after he received a 10-game suspension for hacking Winnipeg's Mathieu Perrault across the back with his stick during a game in mid-November.
Gudas reacted to consecutive cross-checks behind his own net by tripping Perreault and then bringing his stick across his upper back and neck as the Jets forward was on all fours. Gudas told the NHL's Department of Player Safety that although aware of Perrault's presence, he brought his stick down forcefully to be in position to receive the puck if jarred loose.
The DOPS conceded that might have been true, but assessed a 10-game penalty nonetheless because he was to be held accountable for his stick. "It's a hard game out there,'' Gudas said. "Accidents happen. There's 10 different camera angles now. Nine might make it look OK, but if one doesn't. … That's the time we are living in right now. I think everybody has to learn that nobody's perfect.''
Actually, what everybody has to learn – at least everybody who cares about this team – is whether Gudas is capable of learning as well, can somehow hold onto his fear-inducing effectiveness without crossing that line again.
Before that incident, he was having himself a nice season. When he returned, the Flyers had cascaded to the bottom of the league via a 10-game losing streak. He played as if he had lost an edge – literally and psychologically. Indecision, tentativeness and poor decision-making, especially in his own end, marked his play.
"I agree 100 percent,'' he said. "I'm looking to get back on track.''
But how? The "fear factor,'' as Gudas called it, is a big part of his game, even if the number of its practitioners are shrinking. League rosters were once plentiful with edgy players like Washington's Tom Wilson. Now he stands out like your sore toe. Wilson received his second suspension of last season when his high check broke the jaw of Pittsburgh's Zach-Aston Reese early in the Capitals' playoff run. He missed three games, but by the end, the edge and effort he provided was huge in Washington's run to the Cup.
"They don't win the Cup without Tom Wilson,'' Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said.
The Caps will start their defense without Wilson, who Wednesday was suspended 20 games for an illegal check of the head of St. Louis' Oskar Sundqvist in their preseason finale.
Hextall played in an era filled with Tom Wilsons. So did Keith Jones, the NBC analyst and another former Flyer. More of an agitator, Jones also scored 20 or more goals in three of his nine NHL seasons, and finished with 258 points in 491 games – and a plus-53.
"I still think those fear-factor guys have value if they can do the other things well,'' Jones said. "Like skate. And think the game.'
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If there is a recurring criticism of Gudas, it is that. His troubles with the league have come when he surrenders to his worst impulse, when he doesn't use his head. Lost in his tangle with Perreault was that the Canucks forward had just ripped the strapped helmet from Gudas's head. It was a bar brawl on ice. But unlike the ones in the movies, you can't try to break a piece of wood over another guy's back.
"At the end, it's a physical sport and guys should be looking out for themselves out there,'' Gudas said. "For me, it's always about finding the line between right and wrong. For me, finding this line would be the best thing that could happen for me and my teammates.''
Those teammates, he admitted, have emphasized that from time to time. So has Hextall, and his coach Dave Hakstol, now going on his fourth season. Gudas has two years remaining on the four-year, $13.4 million deal he signed after a 2015-16 season in which he averaged almost 20 minutes of ice time.
It was down nearly three minutes last year.
"In the summer, I tried to forget as much as I could about last season,'' he said. "If you're looking in the past, you're never going to live in the future or present. I just have to be picking my right spots. Make sure I'm doing it at the right time, the right moments, the right game. It's still learning. Every year, trying to learn from my own mistakes.''