When Alexander Radulov finally landed in Nashville and re-joined the Predators on March 20th, there was a lot of excitement around the franchise. The locker room was pumped up and Poile was elated to have his ‘prodigal son’ back.
Radulov, who came back after a four-year hiatus in Russia, was expected to be the final piece for a Stanley Cup run – assuming he could successfully make the transition.
Through the first round, the gamble had paid off. He had three goals and seven points in the final nine regular season games, and also tallied five points in five first-round games against Detroit.
He looked like the difference-maker the Predators had hoped for. In individual games, he was frequently the best player on the ice.
When Radulov returned, the biggest worry was how he would affect the locker room chemistry at such an important time in the season. He behaved in his first month back with the team and seemed to be fitting in just fine.
However, Radulov caused a disturbance when he and Andrei Kostitsyn violated team rules by breaking curfew in Phoenix during the second round.
Suddenly, all the joy surrounding Radulov’s return seemed to be a thing of the past as he (and Kostitsyn) let the team down at the worst time possible.
When asked whether the situation regarding Radulov’s suspension for Game Three against Phoenix was a distraction, Mike Fisher said, “It was. Not to lie about it. I mean, we wish that wouldn’t have happened, some of the tension. At the same time it’s not an excuse for how we played. It was everyone and everyone needed to be better. It wasn’t just because of those guys but that was a little bit of an issue for sure.”
Pekka Rinne added, “Obviously that one episode in Phoenix is not going to help, that’s for sure. Those kinds of moments it’s kind of easy to point fingers and go after Rads or Andrei, but I don’t feel like that’s the case. When they were going they were great players and could change the momentum of games. Without them maybe we didn’t beat Detroit and be able to battle against Phoenix.”
The off-ice behavior isn’t the only thing Radulov needs to change. Although his final numbers were good (13 points in 17 games), he was still trying to play his own game that he got used to playing in the KHL – and understandably so. In a matter of weeks he went from playing on a bigger ice surface to NHL playoff hockey where space is limited.
At times, especially against Phoenix, Radulov looked uncomfortable offensively and on his own agenda. At other times he tried too hard to incorporate his teammates instead of trying to make something happen himself.
“My first impression is, yes, he can help us. He’s a talent,” head coach Barry Trotz said of Radulov. “He has to change a little bit with the way he plays. He’s played over in Russia; it’s a way different game [there]. It was a tough transition.”
Radulov is a restricted free agent this summer and has many options. Because he burned off the final year of his entry-level contract with the Predators, the 25-year-old forward is free to go back to the KHL if he so chooses. Or he could choose to re-sign with the Predators, something that he said he would be interested in doing.
“I’m really happy to be back and I enjoyed it a lot here,” Radulov said Wednesday evening. “I would like to come back, but I have no contract. We’ll see (what happens) in the summer. It’s hard to say right now.”
For the Predators to be willing to make a commitment to Radulov, though, they want to see some changes from him in multiple aspects.
“Rads is a wild card – on the ice, off the ice. That doesn’t make him a bad person. He needs to be better in a lot of areas,” GM David Poile said Thursday. “Every conversation I’ve had with him over this situation, he realizes he can change and do something about it.
“We need to think about it; he needs to think about it. This is a player that fortunately and unfortunately has a lot of options. He has the KHL willing to give him whatever he wants. … We’ve got a lot of thinking to do on that; he’s got a lot of thinking to do on that. We’re not close to making a decision on that.”
When the Predators pulled the trigger on bringing Radulov back into the fold, everyone knew it was a roll of the dice. Although he is a special talent, his enthusiastic personality is one that can sometimes rub his teammates the wrong way.
The Predators hierarchy was willing to take that gamble because of what kind of team they had and what kind of unique player Radulov was. The team was willing to let him back because, most importantly, he could help them win.
“He came over for the right reasons. He came over to win a Stanley Cup,” Trotz said. “You never want to turn away a good player who wants to win a Stanley Cup; we all covet those guys.”
Does the team have any regrets about bringing him back? Poile and Trotz say they do not. (Though Poile did have a long pause before saying “No,” when he was asked that question by the media back on May 1st when the suspensions were announced.)
For the Predators to continue to covet Radulov, he needs to change (not a lot, but enough to satisfy Poile, Trotz and the team) both on and off the ice – especially the latter after his ill-timed incident that left him out of the lineup for Games Three and Four in the second round.
“I had a lot of talks with Rads; he knows it was wrong and he does have remorse,” Trotz said. “It was a big adjustment for Rads and he knows he has to change a lot of aspects – on ice, off ice, the way he trains. We had a long conversation about that and he seems very committed to that now.
“As he says, ‘I’ve been able to get away with stuff for four years and no one ever told me no.’”