Lately, the Norfolk Admirals have been running over their AHL competition.
They’re currently on a franchise-record and league-high nine-game winning streak which has vaulted them into first place in the Eastern Conference. The Admirals enter their game against the Hershey Bears on Wednesday night with a two-point lead on the St. John’s IceCaps (Winnipeg Jets) for the Eastern Conference’s top spot, while their lead over the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (Pittsburgh Penguins) has grown to four points in the East Division standings.
As the Admirals have been running over other teams, defenseman Radko Gudas
has been running over Norfolk’s opposing players and earning the reputation as one of the top body checkers in the American Hockey League.
“He’s one of those guys where everybody on the other team knows when he’s on the ice,” said Admirals head coach Jon Cooper. “He has a huge impact on the game because of how he makes other teams’ forwards nervous to take the puck into our zone. He can physically pound people.”
What makes Gudas different than most other bruising defensemen in pro hockey is his size.
At 6-foot-0, 205 pounds, Gudas is hardly a heavyweight.
However, despite often playing against forwards who are taller and heavier than him, Gudas has established himself as someone who can handle any foe, no matter their size.
“He’s not afraid of anybody or anything,” said Cooper. “He knows that the way he plays irritates other teams and that it means other teams are going to be after him. He’s one of those guys who relishes that attention, though.”
While Gudas’ lack of true-heavyweight size occasionally casts him as an underdog, it isn’t as if he hasn’t overcome the odds in the past. Gudas was passed over in the NHL Entry Draft in his first two years of eligibility, prior to being selected by the Lightning in the third round (66th overall) in 2010.
Now, in just his second professional season, the 21-year-old already finds himself on the Admirals’ top shutdown defensive pair, and in the eyes of many scouts, near the top of the depth chart of Tampa Bay’s defensive prospects.
“As a European player who was a late bloomer, he was a bit of an unknown commodity to a lot of scouts,” Cooper added. “It has taken him a little while to develop, but he has all the makings of becoming a really good hockey player.”
Originally a native of Prague in the Czech Republic, Gudas has roots all over Europe.
His father, Leo, played professional hockey for 14 seasons in the Czech Republic, Finland, Switzerland and Germany. And whenever the elder Gudas switched teams, young Radko went along for the ride.
Lightning prospect Radko Gudas has earned a reputation as one of the top body checkers in the AHL
“My father was the only coach I had until I was 14,” said Gudas. “I still talk to him almost every day and he’s had a huge impact on the player I’ve become.”
The younger Gudas’ own hockey travels started when he was 17, when he began a two-season stint with HC Kladno in the Czech Republic. In Kladno, the same program which produced longtime NHL players Patrik Elias and Tomas Kaberle, Gudas garnered recognition in a highly-competitive environment and earned the chance to represent his country at the 2009 World Junior Championships in Ottawa.
“When I was at the World Juniors, I heard a lot of positive things from North American coaches,” Gudas said. “There were lots of junior coaches interested in me and it helped me make the decision to move over to North America.”
Having been identified by North American coaches, Gudas chose to join the Western Hockey League’s Everett Silvertips for the 2009-10 season. Playing under former NHL coach Craig Hartsburg in Everett, Gudas accelerated his adjustment to North American hockey and was drafted by Tampa Bay immediately after the 2009-10 season.
Gudas joined Norfolk last season after one year with Everett, where he’s continued to develop into the type of defenseman that many scouts and AHL observers have compared to Darius Kasparaitis. Despite standing 5-foot-11 and weighing just over 200 pounds himself, Kasparaitis flourished as one of the NHL’s most intimidating hitters for 13 seasons with the New York Islanders, Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers.
“We’re trying to teach Radko to harness his energy,” Cooper added. “Once he fully learns to pick his spots, he’ll be a defenseman that any coach would want on the ice with the game on the line in the last minute of the third period.”
Cooper figures to have lots of chances to test Gudas with games on the line.
Norfolk’s four most recent wins on its nine-game winning streak have come by a single goal, with the team holding a 15-6-1-2 record in one-goal games for the season.
Norfolk is next in action when it hosts the Hershey Bears at Norfolk Scope on Wednesday night at 7:15 p.m. With a win, the Admirals would become the first AHL team in two years to accumulate a 10-game winning streak.