Radko Gudas represents everything that the Flyers once were and should no longer aspire to be.
He is supposed to be their intimidator, a defenseman who provides an all-important physical presence to a lineup that otherwise lacks it, someone who gives opponents pause before they consider coming after Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek or another of the team's truly indispensable members. He is supposed to be all those things. He has proved to be something else entirely: a cheap-shot aficionado, reckless, careless, damaging to the Flyers' chances of winning and to other athletes' health and safety, a player who can't be trusted by either his teammates or his opponents to play a tough, clean game.
Over the last two weeks, Gudas has committed two major penalties and a match penalty - clipping the Montreal Canadiens' Lucas Lessio on Feb. 2, hitting the Buffalo Sabres' Daniel Catenacci in the head on Feb. 11, dropping the New Jersey Devils' Bobby Farnham to the ice with a shoulder to Farnham's face in the Flyers' 6-3 victory Tuesday. On Feb. 4, in a win over the Nashville Predators, he committed three high-sticking infractions. In December, the NHL suspended him for three games after he delivered a head shot to the Ottawa Senators' Mika Zibanejad. In October, he went after the New York Rangers' Viktor Stalberg - again, targeting the head - and was fortunate to escape without a penalty.
This isn't the track record of a run-of-the-mill NHL enforcer. This isn't a player throwing his fists in situations that arise organically from the tone and flow of a particular game. This is a player who either can't control himself or doesn't care to, and the troubling aspect here is that by keeping Gudas in the lineup, Flyers coach Dave Hakstol and general manager Ron Hextall are only emboldening him.
Both Hakstol and Hextall have met with Gudas in recent weeks to discuss his on-ice actions. "I don't really want to talk about that," Gudas said, twice, when asked Thursday after practice about those meetings, but any reprimanding or warnings that Hakstol and Hextall may have administered have stayed behind those closed doors and have had no effect. Nothing has changed. Gudas' behavior has worsened. And with the Flyers four points out of the playoffs entering Thursday and facing the Canadiens in Montreal on Friday, Hakstol seemed uninterested in benching Gudas, of sending anything but the mildest of signals that Gudas was forcing his teammates to kill too many penalties and defend his indefensible brand of hockey.
"What Radko brings to the table is competitiveness, a real tough guy to play against. He's very valuable to our team," Hakstol said. "Everything's a balance, you guys. No one needs to go over the edge here. It's a balance. There are a couple of plays. They are plays that end up with some spotlight on them. But in saying that, we're not going to make too much out of everything. We're going to make sure we work at it, correct the things we can correct, and move forward."
That has been the underlying promise of the Hextall-Hakstol collaboration: that the Flyers were finally moving forward as an organization, moving on from the Broad Street Bullies ethos that they allowed to define their franchise for years, leaving their old ways behind. But this accommodation of Gudas' dirty play, this refusal to sit him out at least one game, suggests that the Flyers don't mind what he's doing all that much.
Gudas isn't Chris Pronger, isn't Scott Stevens, isn't anything more than a defenseman who, by the time the Flyers are ready to contend for a championship, may not even be on the roster anymore. Gudas' value, no matter what Hakstol says, has an expiration date. Yet for this replaceable part, the Flyers are apparently willing to reaffirm every stereotype about themselves and the repercussions could go beyond another five-minute major or three-game suspension for Gudas.
In dishing out the kinds of hits that can truncate a player's career - Lessio, for instance, missed six games - Gudas is courting retaliation not against himself but against the players who matter most to the Flyers' present and future. Giroux and Voracek said all the right things Thursday, that Gudas doesn't want to hurt anyone and that star players always have bullseyes on their backs anyway. But they have to know that if Gudas takes out another team's best forward, it won't be Gudas who might suffer a similar fate later.
"Obviously, if someone goes head-hunting, we cannot control it," Voracek said. "I wouldn't say Gudie's a head-hunter. He's just a wrecking ball. He goes through the body. You don't see him jump. You don't see him blindside guys."
Actually, you do. Gudas' match penalty Tuesday night was as gratuitous as it gets - a sharp shoulder to the head, well away from the puck, that Farnham never saw coming - and it's irrelevant that Farnham is a tough-guy troublemaker, too. There was nothing honorable or inspirational about what Gudas did. He wasn't standing up for a smaller teammate. He sucker-checked Farnham because he could, because that's who Radko Gudas is when he's on the ice, and the Flyers should be long past living with this conduct and its consequences.