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Radulov's return could upset the West's balance of power

Winger Alexander Radulov (right) has blossomed in the KHL, becoming a two-time scoring champion. (Yuliya Dmitrieva/KHL Photo Agency via Getty Images)

By Stu Hackel

We should learn more shortly about Alexander Radulov who -- according to his Russian agent -- seems headed back to the NHL. His arrival is anticipated this week, maybe within the next 24 hours. So far, however, there have been no confirmations from the Predators, who own his rights, or his agent, Jay Grossman, who has been silent in his Twitter account and elsewhere, that this is a done deal. They all seem to be heeding the advice of actor Ian McShane who, as Al Swearengen on the TV series Deadwood, said, "Announcin' your plans is a good way to hear God laugh."

UPDATE: Radulov joined the Predators on Wednesday and practiced with them for the first time, playing on a line with David Legwand and Patric Hornqvist. He also practiced on the second power play unit on a line with Legwand and Andrei Kostitsyn with Ryan Ellis and Sergie Kostitsyn on the points. It's uncertain whether he'll play in the next Nashville game Thursday in Pittsburgh.

Earlier this week, the most Predators GM David Poile would say was this gingerly worded statement released on Monday afternoon: “We have been in contact with Jay Grossman, Alexander’s agent, throughout this process of trying to return Alexander to the Predators and the NHL. Though the complicated process has yet to be concluded, every indication is that Alexander will be returning to Nashville in the near future. We do not anticipate having any further update on this process until tomorrow, at the earliest.”

But others have been speaking. Radulov's potential arrival in Nashville has already shaken some Western Conference teams who worry that the winger's presence will make a rather good team much better, providing it with the pure goal-scorer it has lacked since, well, since Radulov jumped leagues and abandoned his contract for bigger loot in the KHL three years ago.

The Predators were 11-9-4 on December 1. Since then, they're an impressive 31-13-4. This is now a strong club that has 92 points, tied with the Red Wings for the third-highest total in the West, behind only the Blues (100) and Canucks (94). If and when Radulov joins the Preds, he will bring this kind of skill with him:

Clearly, this is a player who enjoys lacing them up, competing and scoring goals. He's as entertaining as he is highly skilled -- but some of that entertainment, the effusive goal celebrations for example, didn't always sit well with some teammates when he last played for Nashville.

Radulov will almost certainly be Nashville's best goal scorer again. And that's why there's been some grousing from other NHL clubs. They argue that, somehow, the Predators are getting preferential treatment because Radulov won't have to clear waivers to rejoin the NHL the way Marty Turco did when the Bruins signed him earlier this month. Turco then had to wait 24 hours to see if another club put in a claim, as the Islanders did last season when they snagged Evgeni Nabokov away from the Red Wings. In those cases, however, the players were signing new contracts.

Of course, teams add players all the time after the trade deadline without them having to clear waivers, especially U.S. collegians whose seasons have ended and are ready to turn pro. In this case, Radulov is already under contract: the entry-level deal he signed in 2006 that still has another season remaining. He owes the Predators that final season and was officially a suspended player. And unlike those whose NHL teams agree to let play in Europe because they don't see a place for them in their North American organizations, there was no agreement for Radulov to play in Russia. It was his decision unilaterally.

The fact is, Radulov never should have been permitted by the KHL to sign with Salavat Ufa, but those were heady days for the Russian league, which had designs on challenging the NHL for pro hockey supremacy. The willful disregard of Radulov's valid NHL contract led to very harsh feelings between the two leagues. The ill will has since eased, perhaps due in no small part to the Russian Ice Hockey Federation's desire to have NHL players skate at the Sochi Olympics in 2014. The leagues now respect each other's contracts, but Radulov's deal was, somehow, exempted from that respect.

The same situation occurred with Alexei Yashin and the Senators in 1999, when he refused to play for Ottawa, left the team, and tried to sign in Switzerland. Back then, the validity of his NHL contract was respected and Yashin was forced to sit out a season as a suspended player. He went back to Ottawa the next year without having to clear waivers. So there is precedent here.

But the sound logic of the NHL's and NHLPA's decision that Radulov should be permitted to rejoin Nashville can be trumped by the emotion of those who only see a more mature 25-year-old who has twice been the KHL's MVP, who led his club to the league championship, and who played well for his country in the World Championships and Vancouver Olympics since he last wore a Predators sweater. Many consider him the best player not in the NHL.

How much could Radulov actually help Nashville? Some GMs, as Bob McKenzie relayed on Montreal's TSN 990 radio on Monday morning (audio), believe he will be a huge addition on the ice. Others say he's not in top shape, he gets by in the KHL on talent, and the speed and physical play of the NHL could render him less effective. We really won't know until he's back wearing Number 47 on the smaller ice surfaces of the NHL, but the Predators are pretty convinced that his performance against elite players in international competition, and his showing in the KHL, will be confirmed in Nashville.

There may be other issues: How well would Radulov be received on his new/old club by players and fans, considering that he walked out on them in 2008? And would he upset the chemistry in a winning dressing room by forcing another Predator out of the lineup?

Radulov rubbed some people the wrong way during his first Nashville stint. “He’d go celebrate by himself,” Preds coach Barry Trotz told David Boclair last month in Nashville's City Paper, said. “Guys were chasing him around the rink trying to celebrate with him and he was ‘Look at me, look at me.’ … What we wanted him to do was just tone it down so it wasn’t over the top and so it brought him back to our team concept a little bit.”

Yet, when he tried celebrating with team captain Jason Arnott after Arnott scored the Preds'second goal in nine seconds against the Red Wings in Game 3 of their 2008 first-round playoff series,  Arnott ended up concussed and eventually forced out of the series, which the Preds went on to lose.

Arnott was no fan of Radulov's and some other veterans shared his feeling. But the younger Predators on that club, notably Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, had a very good relationship with Radulov -- and they run the room now with Weber as the Preds captain. As Boclair wrote, Weber and Suter appreciated Radulov's emotional approach to the game and to life, and they'd have no problem with him returning.

“He was young and he loved scoring goals,” Suter said. “You can’t beat that. Maybe the older guys that were here before didn’t like that part of him. I’m sure the older guys wished that he would have been a little more mellow, but that’s how he was. I loved the fact that he had that emotion. He got guys fired up....

“He’d make an instant impact,” Weber added. “I mean, the guy is that talented and has the ability to change the game. He’s that guy that can take it upon himself to score that big goal or make that big play late in the game. He’s one of the most skilled guys, I think, I’ve ever played with.”

As for the fans, one Nashville insider told Red Light on Monday morning, "The first year they were probably more upset and feeling betrayed, the emotional thing, 'He abandoned us! How could he walk away from Nashville?' Considering where the team is now, I expect he'll be welcome. Fans are fans. They want to win and he can help."

When it comes to changes in the dressing room, that's a reality of pro sports, of course. The Predators experienced change more that most teams at the trade deadline when they brought in Hal Gill, Paul Gaustad and Andrei Kostitsyn. This is a team that's hungry to win. The Predators have only one playoff series victory in franchise history, and they did that last spring. They know they are almost certainly destined to face Detroit in the first round again and, considering how banged up the Wings are right now, Nashville could finish higher and get the home ice advantage. The Wings are a good team at home, but not as good on the road. With the talent the Predators have now, adding Radulov could give them the best chance they've ever had to knock off Detroit in the postseason.

There's one more factor involved in Radulov coming back to Nashville: Poile's quest to keep Suter and Weber, whose contracts each expire in July. Suter will be a UFA, Weber an RFA. Both are highly coveted elsewhere but, all things being equal, they've indicated that they'd consider staying in Nashville if the club makes moves to become championship-caliber. Signing goalie Pekka Rinne, one of the top goalies in the NHL, to a long-term deal earlier this season was one step in that process, and the moves Poile made at the deadline show that the GM is indeed moving in that direction.

Nashville may lack a true impact player at center -- lots of clubs do -- but the Predators have shown that they have the resources and willingness to spend to the cap now, rather than remain the "budget team" they have been. They'll get a chance to sign Radulov long-term when he burns off the final year of his entry-level deal, and keeping Radulov would be big cookie in Poile's jar when he talks contract with his two All-Star blueliners.

So it's easy to see why lots of people whose teams compete against Nashville aren't happy that the Predators might be getting Radulov back. And those who chronically look with disfavor on NHL clubs in non-traditional markets won't like it much, either. If Radulov indeed returns and the Preds, who already have one of the best defensive clubs in the game, his potent offensive dimension could upset the balance of power in the Western Conference, both this season and down the road.

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