Welcome to LWOS Hockey’s summer series. After the historic 2016 NHL Free Agency period, it’s a good time to look at the best free agent signing in the history of all 30 NHL franchises. Up next: The all-time best Calgary Flames free agent signing.
Make sure to check out the previous articles in our 2016 summer series here.
The All-time Best Calgary Flames Free Agent Signing
2012 – Jiri Hudler: Four years, $16 million
Jiri Hudler entered the NHL as a second round, 58th overall pick by the Detriot Red Wings. He spent his first year following the draft by returning to his pre-draft team, HC Vsetin of the Czech Extraliga. The Red Wings officially began his development within their system during the 2003-2004 season.
In his first pro season, Hudler played 12 games with the Red Wings, but spent the majority of this season with their American Hockey League affiliate, the Grand Rapids Griffins. During this campaign, Hudler had 17 goals and 32 assists (49 points) in 57 games. He continued to play with the Griffins, even during the 2004-05 NHL lockout.
2006-07 served as his first full season with the Red Wings. During his second full season with the Red Wings, Hudler was an essential part of the team’s playoff run. His five goals and nine assists in the Stanley Cup Playoffs provided a boost from the team’s strong youth presence. Most notably, he scored the game-winning goal in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Pittsburgh Penguins. On June 4, 2008, he became a Stanley Cup champion.
Hudler continued to progress during the following seasons, despite multiple contract issues with Detroit. These issues resulted in Hudler signing with the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia for the 2009-10 season. Hudler would return to the Red Wings for the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons. During his final year with Detroit, Hudler posted a career-high 25 goals and 50 points. In total, he had 87 goals and 214 points during his career with the Red Wings.
The Calgary Flames were searching for a strong forward that could help increase the scoring at even strength and needing a loud voice in the locker room. They were looking for the glue to gel their team to transition them to a playoff contender. After being on the outside of the post-season for three years, the team looked to add to their ranks via free agency. Finally, the team needed to replace Olli Jokinen, the team’s second-leading goal scorer, who entered free agency.
Hudler seemed to be the perfect fit at the right price point for the struggling franchise. However, after playing with a strong Detroit team, many were worried that Hudler’s success was only due to his talented linemates and not of his own merit.
Despite the uncertainty of Hudler’s standalone talent, he quickly became a key piece in their offensive group. Even in the lockout shortened 2012-13 season, Hudler managed to tally 10 goals and 17 assists. The team finished with a record of 19-25-4, but the foundation was laid for a successful future.
To begin the 2014-15 season, many felt that this group would finish the season near the bottom of the standings. The team, meanwhile, rallied to silence their doubters. It seemed that the whole team relied on their top line of Hudler, Johnny Gaudreau, and Sean Monahan for their production and drive.
In a season full of challenges, including the loss of captain Mark Giordano in March with a torn biceps tendon, the team continued to rally around each other. Hudler took it upon himself to lead the team, eventually being named the NHL’s First Star for the week of March 2-8. His eight-point performance during the last four games of a seven-game road trip earned him the honors. Hudler’s leadership continued as he finished the month of March with 23 points, best in the league, and earned Second Star honors.
Finally, on April 9, the last spot for the division playoff berth was within their reach. The only team standing in their way was the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings. Led by line mates Hudler and Gaudreau, Calgary defeated Los Angeles 3-1, securing their first playoff berth in six years. Hudler and Gaudreau combined to score all three Calgary goals that night.
Ultimately, the Anaheim Ducks eliminated the Flames in the second round. However, Hudler, along with Monahan and Gaudreau, was critical in securing the first round victory against the Vancouver Canucks, Calgary’s first since 2004. Most notably was the top line’s four goals in Game 6, which helped bring the Flames back from a 3-0 deficit to a 7-4 victory to clinch the series.
With the season at a close, Hudler and Monahan shared the team lead in goals (31), but Hudler was the outright leader in assists (45) and points (76). For the playoffs, he finished with four goals and four assists. He was also awarded with the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy, the award given to the most gentlemanly player in the NHL.
Unfortunately, the success of the 2014-15 season was not repeated for the 2015-16 season. After a lackluster performance, news broke in early January that Hudler was suffering with a groin injury. This injury continued to hamper his performance throughout the season. On February 27, 2016, Calgary traded Hudler to the Florida Panthers, ending his tenure with the club.
Calgary continues to miss Hudler’s leadership and keen offensive ability. What they gained in cap space by trading his contract for draft picks, they lost in a talented, loyal guide for the young team.