Deep down, Radko Gudas had to be wondering how many second chances he had left in the NHL, how many more hellacious hits he could unleash without earning a suspension that finally made him radioactive even to a team that treasured his style of play.
The Flyers had lived with so much of his goonish behavior and its costly consequences over his first three seasons with them: a three-game suspension in 2015, a 10-game suspension last year, head shots and slashes and match penalties and ejections that made it fair to ask whether Gudas had any place not just in the Flyers' future but also in any discussion of respectable, professional hockey players.
Was the physical element he brought to the ice, the fear that he inspired in opponents, worth his recklessness, especially at a time when the NHL was ostensibly becoming more punitive in its attempts to reduce head injuries? And could Gudas be an effective player if he did curb his instinctual nastiness?
Gradually, Flyers coach Dave Hakstol seemed to be answering those questions with a firm no, cutting Gudas' average ice time last season by more than two minutes per game from the previous year even as Gudas reduced his penalty minutes and the number of hits he delivered. Yes, yes, Gudas was just 28, and he had two years left on the four-year contract that he had signed with the Flyers in 2016. But the organization had so many defensemen on the roster and in the system who were younger and more talented and counted less against the salary cap …
Sure enough, it dawned on Gudas that he had to find a way to stop being his and the Flyers' own worst enemy, to be just tough and intimidating enough that he could help his hockey team win games – and save his job.
"I was being penalized a lot," he said Thursday morning, hours before the Flyers rallied from a two-goal third-period deficit to beat the Arizona Coyotes in overtime, 5-4. "And with our [penalty kill] not being the greatest, it goes hand-in-hand."
So over the summer, Gudas sat in front of his computer and watched clip after clip of himself on the ice, searching for two disparate things: moments when he had gone too far, and moments when — out of concern that he'd commit a penalty — he had not gone far enough. It was on him, he said, to re-teach himself when to crunch bones and when to back off.
He was asked if he had learned how to do that, and he turned around, bent down, and knocked his right fist against the wooden bench in the Flyers' dressing room.
"So far, yeah," he said. "I think I've done a better job than I did in the past, yes."
So far, he's right. So far, Gudas has managed to find a balance between the player he once was and the player he now has to be. Through his first 14 games, he is a plus-5 and has racked up just 10 penalty minutes. He's still averaging 2.2 hits a game, down just slightly from last season (2.4), and Hakstol has rewarded him by increasing his average ice time by more than half a minute each game.
"You go through a couple of suspensions, and that's really the only choice for him, is to adjust just a little bit," Hakstol said. "Right there, the critical part is just making a small adjustment and not changing his game, because what he brings is very valuable. The physical edge that he brings is very important to our team, and … the largest area of growth in his game this year has been his efficiency with the puck, his consistency with the puck. The combination of those two things has made him a real effective player for us."
So far. There's nothing wrong with being skeptical that Gudas will maintain this relative restraint over a full season. Given his history, you would be naïve not to be.
Maybe all it will take is someone willing to push his button, to test him just a bit, and he'll lose control again. That's pretty much what happened last November, when the Winnipeg Jets' Mathieu Perreault jabbed Gudas with two quick cross-checks, and Gudas tripped him, then used his stick to chop Perreault across the back of the neck.
Ten games later, his suspension finished, Gudas returned a different player, meeker than he had been, tentative. A year later, he sounded chastened.
"It's a hockey thing," he said Thursday. "There's a lot of angry guys out there. Something happens. Somebody slashes somebody. Somebody gets pissed off. That's why there's fighting in there. That's why there are penalties. But you do something not in the game's rules, and you get penalized and hurt your team."
It's essential for the Flyers that Gudas remember that. The Flyers need the element that he can provide, as long as he can properly channel it, as long as he really has learned something from those hard lessons of his past. "Hockey's developing," Radko Gudas said, "and so am I."