During Detroit’s ’08-09 run to the Stanley Cup Finals, winger Jiri Hudler began to come out of his shell. Just his 3rd full season with the ‘Wings, he managed 23 goals and 57 points while picking up limited minutes playing behind the likes of Hossa, Franzen, Datsyuk, and Zetterberg. By all accounts Hudler appeared poised for a breakout campaign in ’09-10.
Unexpectedly however, Jiri decided to take his services overseas and signed a contract with HC Dynamo Moscow of the KHL. While in Russia he became a point-per-game player, racking up 54 points in 54 games. So when Hudler returned to the Red Wings last season, expectations were higher than ever for the young forward. Unfortunately he didn’t even come close to reaching them.
Hudler struggled to produce throughout the entire year, and by season’s end had only found the back of the net 10 times. His downgraded play puzzled many Red Wings fans who had witnessed him just 2 seasons ago play with flashes of brilliance every time he stepped on the ice. Now Hudler was just fighting to keep a place on the roster, and was rotated out of the lineup several times in favor of Drew Miller, Patrick Eaves, or Kris Draper.
At the start of the year coach Mike Babcock allowed Hudler some leeway. Coming back from a year of playing a very different style of hockey overseas, coupled with trying to form chemistry with new linemates, would be a challenge for any player. Slowly but surely it seemed that Hudler was beginning to click with new (to the Red Wings) centerman Mike Modano. Just as things began looking up for the line, Modano was afflicted with a long-term injury and Hudler was forced to adjust once more.
Though he didn’t play awfully, Jiri Hudler certainly didn’t play like he was expected to, and often how the Red Wings needed him too. It appeared bad habits were formed in his time away from NHL hockey. Whether it was being caught with his head down or making lazy passes, #26 certainly wasn’t impressing anyone. Understandably then, towards the end of the season, Red Wings staff and fans alike began calling him out to perform at a higher level. Sadly, it didn’t seem to have much of an effect.
Queue 2012. Jiri Hudler is in the final year of a contract which he stands to make $3,000,000 off of this season (CapGeek.com). If he can only put up similar numbers to the year before, he’s being considerably over paid. That makes this a crucial year for Jiri. If he wants to return to Detroit next season, he’s going to have to start playing at the level that’s expected of him. Already he’s been called out by coach Babcock to perform better, and the stakes are higher this time around.
If Detroit doesn’t get what they’re paying for it could severely hurt their chances of making it deep into the playoffs, assuming they reach the playoffs at all (something Red Wings fans tend to take for granted after 20 odd years of consecutive appearances). The Red Wings are a changing team, and they need Hudler to produce more offense than a season ago. If he can’t provide them with that, Red Wings General Manager Ken Holland will be forced to offer Hudler less money, or possibly not offer him a contract at all.
Hudler has shown some promise during this preseason, most recently netting a pair of goals in the team’s annual Red & White Game in Grand Rapids, MI. Inter-squad scrimmage games and regular season games are very different though, and it remains to be seen whether Hudler can silence the critics and secure himself an extension with the only NHL franchise he’s ever known.