By Nicholas J. Cotsonika
After Alexander Radulov landed in Nashville on Tuesday night, a TV crew filmed him walking through the airport – wearing gray sweats, carrying a phone and a shoulder bag, rolling a suitcase behind him.
"Welcome home, huh?" somebody said. "Hope you win a championship."
"I'll try, yeah," he said.
Predators general manager David Poile picked him up personally and drove him to Bridgestone Arena to drop off his gear. Then the Preds held a news conference Wednesday morning to, as Poile put it, "welcome him back to the Predator family." They even had him put on a No. 47 sweater for the occasion.
"We saved your number," Poile told him, "because we knew you were coming back."
They're treating Radulov like a native son or a big-ticket free agent. They're treating him like he's the final piece to the Predators' first Stanley Cup, like bygones are bygones and Nashville is where he belongs.
But let's be real about what he is, and let's be realistic about what this means.
Radulov is not a native son; he is a prodigal son. He was drafted 15th overall by the Predators in 2004. He played for them in 2006-07 and ’07-08, then left for his real homeland, Russia, and the Kontinental Hockey League – with one season left on his entry-level deal.
He isn't a big-ticket free agent; he was already the Predators' property. He broke his NHL contract for much bigger money elsewhere. The Preds had to lift his suspension so he could come back.
He might be the final piece to the Preds' first Cup, but that's far from certain. The two-time KHL MVP was probably the best player outside the NHL and could make a legitimate contender even stronger. But he hasn't played an NHL game since 2008, he must adjust on the fly at the most intense time of year and has only nine games to prepare for the playoffs – eight, if he doesn't play Thursday night at Pittsburgh because he's too tired from traveling.
Bygones might be bygones. Nashville might be where he stays. But this is business. Radulov can say "it's about time" and he "missed a little bit NHL," but he left on his own and the only reason he returned now is that the timing is perfect for him. His KHL team was eliminated from the playoffs, and his KHL contract was set to expire. He can burn the last year of his NHL contract in a matter of weeks, making him a restricted free agent, and he can do it at a time when the Preds are poised to make a playoff run.
In the short term, the Predators have to hope they're getting a motivated player. If Radulov plays well and the Preds go deep, he will increase his value to two leagues – assuming he hasn't already committed to returning to Russia next season. He said he hadn't promised anyone anything.
"Alexander Radulov has as many options, if not more options, than anybody," Poile said. "He can sign with us. He can be a restricted free agent. He can go back and sign with the KHL. I guess you call that leverage."
In the long term? Who knows? First come the playoffs. Then come the negotiations – between Radulov, the Predators and the KHL, but also between the NHL and NHL Players' Association in collective bargaining. There could be a lockout or new salary restrictions that lead Radulov back to Russia.
"To me, there's no timetable, no pressure," Poile said. "If this is the right fit, that's great. Maybe we'll live happily ever after for more years. If it's not the right fit, we've done the best we can, and we'll go from there."
The Predators are making the best of a bad situation. Their competitors can gripe that Radulov didn't have to pass through waivers and is being allowed to burn the last year of his entry-level deal at his convenience. But the Preds didn't stash Radulov in Europe. He jilted them. It's their right to take him back now.
Even though it sets a bad precedent, the Predators have little choice. They have to take advantage of this opportunity to bring back Radulov, not knowing if they will ever have the chance again. They have to take advantage of this opportunity to go for the Cup, not knowing the future of their star defensemen. Ryan Suter can become an unrestricted free agent July 1. Shea Weber can follow next summer.
They need to open their arms and make Radulov feel loved, and they need to keep the pressure off as much as possible. They have a much better chance of winning and convincing him to stay that way. And though Poile needed to run the idea of Radulov by Weber, his captain, that was just due diligence and wise politics.
Radulov should fit in the room just fine. He apparently has kept in touch with at least a couple of his former teammates, and he has kept tabs on the Predators. Every time Poile talked to Radulov over the years, Radulov knew what was up with the team. In the car on Tuesday night, Radulov asked Poile about "Soots" and "Webs," as if they were buddies.
Players generally will accept a new guy if they feel he gives them a better chance to win and he pulls his weight, and again, Radulov has every reason to play hard – whether it's for his next contract, the Cup or both. These goals are not mutually exclusive.
"He's passionate about hockey," Poile said. "He wants to play. I can't think of a game where I've watched him play where he didn't try 100 percent and give it his all. He's all about hockey."
The bigger question is how Radulov will fit on the ice. He's dynamic, a player who wants the puck and can make an impact with it. He scored 26 goals for the Predators at age 21 in 2007-08, and you've got to think he is better at age 25. If productive, he could boost an offense that is ranked eighth and a power play that is already ranked No. 1. The problem is, he has played the past four years on a bigger ice surface, in a league with fewer games, less hitting and a slower pace.
"There's a lot of good players playing there," Radulov said. "But the hockey is completely different, I can tell you that."
To top it off, Radulov hasn't been skating lately. He said there was no ice available after his team was eliminated from the playoffs. He had to complete the paperwork and make arrangements so he could come to Nashville, then had to make the trip halfway around the globe. Poile thinks Radulov is at a high enough level where he can adjust quickly, but the playoffs are only three weeks away.
"How does he fit in? Who does he play with? What's the chemistry going to be?" Poile said. "The bad news is that we've only got nine games before the playoffs. The good news is that we've got nine games before the playoffs."
Perhaps the best news is that, at the very least, the Predators will never have to wonder what it would have been like had their prodigal son never returned. Better to have Raduloved and lost than to never have Raduloved at all.
"It certainly wasn't fun in 2008 when he left," Poile said. "That wasn't a good thing. Maybe now this is going to be a real good thing. Maybe we're getting back a more finished product, a more mature person and player. Maybe it works out really good for us. That's certainly what I'm hoping."