By Nicholas J. Cotsonika
BOCA RATON, Fla. – Man walks into a bar. He hears NHL general managers grousing about an AWOL Russian potentially rejoining the Nashville Predators for the final few games of the regular season and the playoffs. He tells them they're just worried about the Preds winning the Stanley Cup.
Only this is no joke. This is essentially what happened Monday night after the first round of the GM meetings. Deputy commissioner Bill Daly went out for some beverages and encountered what he called "a little bit of resistance" to Alexander Radulov waltzing back to the NHL without going through waivers.
"Any resistance would be competitive-based resistance," Daly said, "not logic-based resistance."
Still, there was resistance, and Daly had to lay out the league's logic formally Tuesday morning during the second round of the GM meetings.
The bottom line is not a punch line. If the Predators add Radulov – after adding Hal Gill,Andrei Kostitsyn and Paul Gaustad before the trade deadline – they will bolster their playoff chances further. They also might bolster their chances of re-signing cornerstone defensemen Ryan Suter and Shea Weber.
"If it happens," said Predators GM David Poile, "that would be great – great for our franchise, great for a lot of things."
Just not great for the Preds' opponents.
The Predators drafted Radulov 15th overall in 2004. He played 145 games for them over two seasons, racking up 44 goals and 95 points. Then he bolted for big money in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League in 2008 – with one year remaining on his entry-level NHL contract.
The NHL did not recognize Radulov's KHL contract. He was suspended. Didn't matter. He was gone, robbing the Predators of a talented winger and an important asset.
Poile always thought Radulov would return eventually to play in the top league in the world. It never materialized. He still doesn't want to get his hopes up too much. But he also said: "It feels like it's the right time." Radulov's KHL team has been eliminated from the playoffs, the Predators are loading up for a Cup run and the stars are lining up. Poile is talking to Radulov's agent daily.
"He's a dynamic player," Poile said. "He's an offensive player. He's a two-time MVP of the KHL. He's won a championship, played in the Olympics, won a world championship. I mean, he's a top player. How can that not help us?"
Generally players who play overseas must pass through waivers before they can play in the NHL. Some GMs thought that would apply to Radulov. Players added to the roster after the trade deadline are not eligible for the playoffs, either.
And this does set a bad precedent. Radulov broke his contract. He left for another league. He made a lot of dough instead of accepting his $918,578 NHL salary. Now he can return at his convenience, burn a year of his contract in a brief period and become a restricted free agent July 1?
"He gets to have his cake and eat it, too," said St. Louis Blues GM Doug Armstrong. "He wins on all fronts."
This issue likely will be addressed in collective bargaining this summer. So what? The Stanley Cup will be won by then.
"It will probably be something that might get closed off moving forward, but moving forward doesn’t help this year," Armstrong said.
But here's the thing: The Predators did not choose to send Radulov to overseas. They did not sign him to a new contract. They kept him on their roster as a suspended player. Daly said other teams have nothing to complain about.
"If they're really unhappy with Radulov coming in, they haven't been paying attention for 10 years," Daly said. "We have historically always taken the position a player who goes AWOL on a contract is treated like a suspended or an injured player. He has contractual obligations to a club. The club should be able to take advantage of those obligations at any time they can get him back."
Ultimately, it's up to the Predators whether they want to set this precedent for themselves. They could tell Radulov to buzz off – that if he wants to return, he can return at the beginning of the season and play a full schedule for $918,578 before he can earn RFA status.
"The club doesn't have to take him back," Daly said. "The club wants him back. That's totally their right."
The Predators want Radulov back for good reasons.
First and foremost, they want to win now. They were aggressive before the trade deadline because they have been building for years to get to this point, where they're right in the thick of things in the West, and their future is uncertain with Suter set to become an unrestricted free agent July 1 and Weber set to follow next summer. They have to go for it while they know they can, and they hope to convince Suter and Weber to stay.
Second, this might be their best chance to convince Radulov to stay, too. If they play hardball, he might not come back at all. If they play nice – and if things go well – maybe they can reach a new deal. It's interesting that while most of the team has turned over since Radulov left, he was close to two of the players who remain – Suter and Weber.
"Why don't we wait till next year?" Poile said. "We think our chances of him coming back – our chances of keeping him here if he comes back and extending his contract – is going to be way better then if we say wait till next year. By next year, he might be re-signed over there again.
"I think you've got to take advantage of the situation. … Our team is a good team, and there's lots of good teams in the NHL right now. We're one of them. This is going to make us better. But to me, if he comes back now, I would certainly be thinking there's a chance he's going to stay, not just leave."
Not just leave again, he means.
Anyway, the other GMs say they accept the league's explanation.
"They have been consistent on it, they're not changing their stance on it, so I guess we've just got to live with it now," said Chicago Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman. "In a perfect world, he wouldn't be coming back to play with a team we're fighting with. But I can see the other side of it, which is that Nashville did nothing wrong in this. The guy left them, and now he's deciding to come back to them. That's the way the rules are written."
No hard feelings, right?
"Nobody said a word to me," Poile said. "I think behind my back they talk about it."
Poile drew a lot of laughs with that comment. We'll see if he gets the last one.