If the Florida Panthers wanted to change their image of being an easy team to get over on, the signing of Radko Gudas certainly helped.
When your hockey team signs a player nicknamed “The Butcher,” it probably wasn’t because he plays a finesse game.
As the saying goes, you love having a guy like Radko Gudas on your team.
If he’s on the other team, well, not so much.
“I definitely like having him as a teammate,’’ Anthony Duclair said, “and not have to play against him.’’
Said Joel Quenneville: “The one element you can never have too much of … is guys who make it tough on their opponent knowing you may have to match up against that guy all night long.
“It’s going to be a hard night.”
Gudas was the first free agent to sign with the team in October and along with the addition Patric Hornqvist, GM Bill Zito sent an early message to the league that the Panthers were not going to be an soft mark anymore.
While other free agent acquisitions such as Carter Verhaeghe and Duclair add more offense than Gudas — who signed the biggest contract of Florida’s free agent class — there is little doubt of the impact to the team.
Gudas has not only brought his trademark heavy-hitting style of play to the Panthers, but he has been very good defensively.
He is also as well liked as anyone on the team and has helped lead the Panthers to one of the best starts in the entire league.
Coming into Sunday, the Panthers have won five of six and share first place in the Central Division with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Florida’s 40 points are tied with Tampa Bay, Toronto and the Islanders for most in the entire league.
As the season has gone along, Quenneville has used Gudas more and more in tight situations and he has been paired with Gustav Forsling on the second pair.
Since starting the season in the 15-minute range, Gudas’ minutes have steadily increased and he is now playing between 19-20 minutes per night.
With a couple additions and subtractions, the Panthers upgraded their defense this season.
Gudas has been an important addition.
“I think we looked at our D last year and there is always something you want to improve,” Quenneville said.
“Everyone thought that was one area over the last couple of years … if we could shore up our D in any capacity. … He brings that element we didn’t have.
“But he has played beyond that physicality that he brings. He is patient with the puck. Most nights he does a lot of good things with it. He is willing to take a hit to make a play. He has added a nice component and is a nice, solid pair to whomever is his partner.”
But, it is his big hits which can turn things around as one did Saturday night.
Down 1-0 in the second period, Florida was searching to get its game in gear.
Then, along the Panthers bench, Gudas walloped Carl Soderberg.
The look on MacKenzie Weegar’s face said it all.
“I don’t know if you saw the bench but the boys were pretty pumped,” Duclair said.
“Guds is pretty physical and can switch the momentum on any shift. It’s great to have him out there banging bodies. … It definitely shifted the other way.”
— Jameson Olive (@JamesonCoop) March 14, 2021
Just two minutes after the hit, Sasha Barkov tied the score and the Panthers were off and running.
The Panthers scored three goals within a span of less than five minutes en route to a 4-2 win.
“Guds has some impact on changing the complexion of a game with the physicality that he brings,” Quenneville said.
Gudas was credited with six hits on Saturday adding to his NHL lead.
In 26 games this season, Gudas has 126 hits. That is almost five per game.
There have been games in the past where the Panthers as a team may not have had five hits.
”He brings an element to the game,’’ Zito said. “I think anyone who has played against him knows — not unlike Patric Hornqvist — he is a guy you hate to play against.
”Generally, that means you want him on your team. He’s a leader. He plays the game the right way. He is a very smart defender. When you talk to him, not only does he bring an edge to him, but he is usually in the right place at the right time defensively. He is a great addition to our defensive corps.’’
Upon signing a three-year deal with Florida worth $2.5 million per season, Gudas told NHL Network that he was looking forward to “doing some damage” with the Panthers.
So far, he has done just that.
Gudas first came to the attention of the Panthers as a member of the Lightning as he quickly became one of the team’s most hated opponents.
“I started my career in Florida and I was excited in the interest from the team,’’ Gudas said a few days after signing with the Panthers.
“It really wasn’t a big decision for me. It was an easy decision. This is a great team with a great coach.”
He has been the most hated opponent for a lot of teams ver the years he has been disciplined a couple of times, most recently taking a two-game suspension in 2019 while with the Flyers.
Gudas earlier was suspended 10 games for hitting Winnipeg’s Mathieu Perreault in the head.
The reputation of being a dirty player was earned earlier in his career, but as Quenneville points out, Gudas has appeared to have evolved into a responsible defensive player — yet one who can still drop that hammer.
“It is part of my game,” Gudas said. “I play a tough, physical role … I always look forward to playing a physical game and making sure teams don’t like coming into our building.”
In 2013, he and Scottie Upshall got into it when Upshall squirted a downed Gudas with his water bottle. Gudas was so insensed he went after the entire Florida bench.
The following season, Gudas laid Upshall out with a big hit that caught the attention of the league’s department of player safety but did not draw a suspension or fine.
Gudas had his forearm up during the hit — one that flattened Upshall and sent his helmet flying — but said it was just to shield himself from the impact.
“I decided I was going to step up, help our forwards to keep the puck in the zone,” Gudas said at the time.
“I didn’t want to get hit, so I protected myself. That’s part of the game. I’m going to play the body too. I don’t want to say guys should expect it, but stuff happens. … Obviously, you don’t want to hit the head, but sometimes it happens if the head’s really low. That’s hockey. It happens sometimes.”
Although the Panthers thought it was a dirty hit since Upshall appeared to be sized up, Tampa Bay’s Jon Cooper thought otherwise.
As is usually the case when it comes to players like Gudas, Cooper may have a different through if he were to hit a Lightning player like that now.
“He would have done that to anybody,” Cooper said. “He doesn’t pick and choose. He just plays. (The Panthers) have a couple big boys that can run around there a little bit. Gudas looks right through that. I think he plays the game honest. He plays the game fair. He doesn’t take liberties on players.
“You need to have guys like that on your team, especially when they can contribute both offensively and defensively. Those are great guys to have, and I’m glad he’s on our team.”
Now, so are the Panthers.