Next summer we could see one of the better NHL free agent classes in recent memory. Another intriguing name has just been added to the mix.
Reports surfaced on Thursday night that Alexander Radulov could be eyeing a return to the NHL. The much-discussed 29-year-old winger has reportedly rejected a contract extension offer from his current KHL club, CSKA Moscow, and is keen to become an unrestricted free agent. Slava Malamud reports that if Radulov were to return to the NHL he would indeed be UFA as his contract obligations to the Nashville Predators were completed during his last NHL comeback attempt at the end of the 2012 season.
Radulov would be 30 when the 2016-17 NHL season begins. It’s the age that’s largely accepted as the turning point in a scorer’s career: offensive players experience a steep drop-off in production at 30. But given how impressive Radulov’s numbers continue to be in the KHL, including a 1.25 points per game pace during his career and a respectable 1.15 PPG through 32 games this season, you have to imagine that a return to North America would generate some interest from NHL teams.
Yes, Radulov has had a history of off-ice issues that would likely scare many a team away. He bailed on his contract with the Predators in 2008 and headed for Salavat Yulaev Ufa in the KHL. When he ultimately returned to the Preds late in the 2012 season, he was suspended by the team after being spotted at a Scottsdale bar and breaking curfew before a playoff game. At the end of the 2011-12 season, the Predators chose not to resign him.
Radulov has been prolific the last three seasons, jumping to second all-time in KHL scoring. What he could bring to an NHL franchise is obvious: elite, high-end skill, especially on the power play. After spending the last three seasons skating on the big ice in the KHL, the thought of what he could do in a 3-on-3 situation in the NHL must have some GMs intrigued.
There’s been a lot of chatter about Radulov heading to the Colorado Avalanche. When he spent two seasons lighting up the QMJHL with the Quebec Remparts, none other than Avs head coach Patrick Roy was behind the bench. Radulov has previously expressed how he enjoyed playing for Roy and there were also reports that Roy personally reached out to Radulov about playing in Colorado.
Would this be a good fit? The Avalanche aren’t exactly lacking in terms of goal scoring or power play. The belief here seems to be that Roy could motivate Radulov where other other coaches have failed.
Will that be the narrative if he does indeed return? At 29, Radulov is pretty much who he is: one of the more dangerous offensive weapons in the game. But it would be foolish to expect him to become a vastly different person. However, a league that’s clamoring for goals would surely welcome him even if he still brings some quirks to the rink.
The very fact that he’s reportedly not signing an extension with CSKA Moscow means Radulov is at least somewhat interested in returning to the NHL and, at his age, perhaps he’s even concerned with his legacy. He was 25 when he was last suspended by the Predators. It won’t take you long to find 25-year old players living abroad who’ve made a few mistakes. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and stay away from the claims of North American media about Russian players not working hard, or whatever synonym for lazy seems to be the word of the day.
Radulov will have to earn his way back. He won’t be getting any deals with term out of the gate. Colorado is a fine option, but is Roy, whose job already may be in jeopardy if the Avalanche can’t climb out of the hole they’ve dug, willing to make Radulov his last-ditch effort to save his gig? What a gamble.
Assuming he’ll be given a one-year deal with a manageable cap hit, and considering Radulov’s offensive upside, here are a few other possible landing spots:
Buffalo Sabres: Given their trade for Evander Kane, they’re clearly no strangers to taking on a player who’s been dogged by questions about his off-ice behavior. The Sabres are stacked down the middle but a winger who can boost their goal scoring production, which is currently near the bottom of the league, makes some sense.
Washington Capitals: Another obvious one here, but Radulov’s transition back into the NHL could be eased by fellow countryman Alex Ovechkin and coach Barry Trotz, for whom Radulov played for in Nashville. Radulov praised Trotz as well. Washington is up against the cap now but has a number of players coming off the books at the end of this season.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Yes, really. Radulov won’t come here looking for a long-term deal and the Leafs have made it a habit under their new regime of giving cast-offs one year deals in the hope of revitalizing them before flipping them at the deadline for picks. If Radulov really wants to prove to the league that he is serious about an NHL return, why not do it under one of the great motivators in the game in Mike Babcock and on what remains one of the league’s biggest stages? Plus, wouldn’t you know it, the Leafs continue to hurt offensively. Stranger things have happened.