“Next man up’’ is a hockey axiom based in resolve and bravado.
It is not intended to be an operating philosophy.
Two months into a season they hoped would be less volatile than the previous one, it has become exactly that for the Flyers. Injuries to Andrew MacDonald, Shayne Gostisbehere, and Radko Gudas – at one point, simultaneously – have forced Flyers coach Dave Hakstol to mix, match, and hope his way through a grueling early schedule against the heavier Western Conference, and the results at times were eye-covering.
Even now, as the veteran MacDonald appears ready to rejoin the lineup as soon as Tuesday night, Hakstol will have to deal with the lengthy absence of his other experienced blueliner, Gudas, who was handed a 10-game suspension Sunday night after a phone hearing with the NHL’s Department of Player Safety.
Gudas had received a match penalty in the first period Thursday in Winnipeg after slashing Mathieu Perreault on the back of his neck as he was on all fours.
The suspension is the third of the 27-year-old Gudas’ career, all within the last three seasons. That history was a factor in the length of the new ban. But the suspensions tell only part of the story. For each time Gudas has been forced by the league to sit, there are a handful in which the penalty issued on the ice was deemed sufficient.
A week before he was suspended for hitting Boston’s Austin Czarnik in the 2016 preseason, a boarding hit on the Rangers’ Jim Vesey – for which he was given a major and game misconduct – was reviewed by the NHL and no suspension added.
“Obviously, I do have a lot of hits throughout the season,’’ Gudas told TSN shortly after that. “So if you have three or four questionable hits out of 250 or 300 hits per year, I think that’s a pretty good number. Accidents happen and everything isn’t always perfect, but I’m never targeting a guy to get him hurt or anything like that.’’
Indeed, Gudas’ latest transgression came amid a scrum in which his victim ripped his helmet from his head. Gudas reacted with the slash, but only he knows whether he was targeting Perreault’s neck or not. Replays at least imply he lost his balance as he delivered the blow.
Here’s what we do know. The Flyers are not a big or particularly physically intimidating team, at least not until Samuel Morin finally arrives and/or some of their bigger or physical draft picks like Wade Allison and 6-6 Isaac Ratcliffe become NHL-ready.
They need Gudas’ physicality, need his experience too. Without him Thursday, rookie Travis Sanheim committed the type of costly turnover that the Flyers are going to have to live with in this season of youthful transitioning. It led to a two-on-one and a power play goal in the 3-2 shootout loss to the Jets in Winnipeg.
Saturday afternoon, the Calgary Flames scored on three second-period power plays to flip that game upside down as well. Gostisbehere took consecutive penalties during that meltdown, first for mouthing at a referee from the bench about a dirty hit not called, then shortly after his return for an obvious elbow along the boards.
Frustrated? You bet. Make no mistake, opposing forwards feel a little bit more liberated without the specter of Gudas out there, or about to be about there. As we’ve seen, he’s willing and able to mix it up with anyone in the league — which, with Wayne Simmonds, gives the Flyers exactly two guys like that.
Ghost, Ivan Provorov, and Robert Hagg may already be better skilled and ultimately better defensemen, but their total number of NHL games (282) is less than the 286 Gudas has played. Morin may someday make Gudas’ physicality less crucial, but if he is called up in the wake of the expected suspension – well, since his game is considered less honed than Sanheim’s, it’s reasonable to expect some rookie mistakes with him too.
Few realized the domino effect MacDonald’s injury would have four weeks ago. The Flyers’ challenge now is to make sure Gudas’ prolonged absence doesn’t create the same kind of initial chaos.