Everyone knew when Radko Gudas was on the ice last season for the Norfolk Admirals.
You had to.
Admirals coach Jon Cooper said you could see players on the opposing bench look over to see if the 6-foot, 201-pound Czech defenseman was about to jump over the boards.
“There’s nobody you’re going to put out on the ice that will be more competitive and tougher to play against than [Gudas],” Cooper said. “He has an innate ability to find the holes, the seams, and his timing is impeccable. They’re not dirty hits. He’s not head hunting. He just knows how to line up a guy. Most teams know when he is on the ice and they don’t come across the middle that often.”
Gudas, a third-round pick of the Lightning in 2010, won’t be making any bone-crushing hits at the Bolts’ Development Camp this week. After his first season in the American Hockey League, he is just trying to keep rounding out his game and making strides toward becoming a fan favorite at the St. Pete Times Forum.
Cooper said Gudas matured as a player this season and improved his skill set, but has to keep refining his game. Gudas had four goals and 13 assists, along with an impressive plus/minus rating of plus-15. He also wasn’t afraid to drop the gloves, compiling 165 penalty minutes.
“I expected harder hockey and bigger guys, but in the AHL you also have smarter players and everybody knows their roles,” said Gudas, 21. “I need to be stronger in my upper body and to be able to cover more space in the defensive zone, make a more powerful [first step]. That’s the main thing, but I also want to be more useful in the offensive zone, getting open for more shots.”
Gudas will use every source he can. He has had excellent coach/teacher since he was born.
Leo Gudas played 12 seasons of pro hockey in Europe and won a bronze medal in the 1992 Olympics for Team Czechoslovakia when his son Radko was 2 years old. Leo, a left defenseman who played against Lightning President and GM Steve Yzerman in several international events, was drafted by Calgary in the 12th round in 1990.
Yzerman compared Leo Gudas to his former Red Wings teammate Vladimir Konstantinov. But he was not quite as big an open-ice hitter as Radko.
“His dad was really abrasive, very competitive,” Yzerman said.
The Czechs often beat Yzerman’s Canadian team in that period.
“They had a good team,” Yzerman said. “They were tough to play against.”
Radko knows he has to keep working to reach his father’s level.
“I’m still learning every day,” Radko said. “He watches all my games [on the computer] and sends me text messages about what I did wrong and what I can do better. Having [advice] from my coaches and my dad, is great.”
Radko was a forward until ninth grade. He was on a team that was short on defensemen and the coach asked him if he’d like to make the switch.
Soon after, Gudas was invited to the national team as a defenseman. He represented the Czech Republic at the 2009 and 2010 World Junior Championships.
But playing in Europe was not the best place for Gudas, who was a fan of NHL Hockey Hall of Fame defenseman Scott Stevens.
“They were telling me I’m more of a North-American style hockey player,” Gudas said.
After high school, Gudas decided to try North American hockey. He joined the Everett Silvertips of the Western Hockey League.
Gudas had a huge season at Everett, winning the team’s Ironman Award in 2009-10. He had seven goals, 30 assists and 151 penalty minutes – second among WHL rookies. He was an amazing plus-45.
“It worked,” Gudas said. “I’m here. I am real happy I did that.”
Gudas went to training camp for the Los Angeles Kings in 2009 before playing at Everett. Fortunately for the Bolts, the Kings let him go without signing a contract. Tampa Bay picked Gudas with the second of its three third-round selections, four spots ahead of the Kings.
Cooper said there are so many good players that come out of Europe, but often they get the artificial tag as skill-first guys. It didn’t take him long to realize Gudas broke the mold. Lightning forward Blair Jones, who played 56 games in Norfolk last season, said it was fun to play the big defenseman.
“Radko is a throwback,” Cooper said. “He is all meat and potatoes. … He hits like a truck.”
Cooper said Gudas just needs to keep improving, making more breakout passes that are tape to tape and move the puck quicker and more sharply to the forwards. He still has a ways to go.
Gudas is poised to learn at every step along the way.
“I will do everything I can to give me a shot [at the NHL],” Gudas said. “I’m going to work hard and be the best I can to help the team.”