As the NHL season nears the mid-mark, the Montreal Canadiens have undergone one of the most impressive transformations. They were a team that, by all accounts, was heading toward a significant overhaul and their metamorphosis has them firmly planted in the playoff conversations.
Big change came in the off-season, when they swapped superstar defenseman PK Subban for Shea Weber, a player who management thought would be more dependable. But more than that trade—and second only to a healthy Carey Price—a savvy signing on a much-maligned player has catapulted Montreal to first place in the Atlantic Division.
This season, 30-year-old Russian forward Alexander Radulov has been one of the best players on the Canadiens by any metric. He’s third on the team in points, his shot attempts for percentage at even strength is at an impressive 53.5 percent, which is a higher relative average than the team’s play (per corsica.hockey) and he’s simply re-invigorated the offense of a squad that looked lifeless last year.
"He [Radulov] is still the same player on the ice,” Weber said earlier this season according to CBC. “He's still dynamic. Dangerous whenever he gets the puck."
In sports, anything unconventional is often maligned. These are institutions that are so steeped in tradition that players deemed outsiders often feel unwelcome.
It makes breaching the walls of a sport at a professional level all the more difficult and often takes these athletes a long time, if they get they ever get there. But that’s usually through no or little fault of their own.
“It was a long time ago and I was young,” Radulov told the assembled media in Montreal after signing with the team in the offseason, about his brief and non-linear 154 games with the Nashville Predators.
“It was a different situation,” he explained. “It’s in the past and we’re going forward.”
But Radulov’s numbers, if you forgot his time in Nashville, were quite impressive as Weber alluded to, not the rather forgettable time Radulov seemed to write it off as, in his preseason media availability. Maybe he was a different player off the ice, but when he laced up the skates, he was no doubt a difference maker.
In those 154 games, Radulov averaged 0.66 points per game, including 0.72 in his full season with the team in 2007-08 as a 21-year-old. When he came back for a handful of games in 2011-12,
What hurt Radulov more than anything was the curfew violation. Hockey more than any sport worships authority figures and there’s no greater sin than the proverbial slap in the face of a coach. You could drive your shoulder into a defenseless player, ending his career, and after a few months of keeping your elbows down, you’re reformed. But if you make it back to the hotel late, you’re a pariah.
In Radulov’s case, it was excessive. During a playoff series, he was allegedly out until 4 a.m. with teammate Andrei Kostityn. It’s unacceptable conduct certainly, but it made his departure back to Russian no more audible than a whisper.
When Radulov bolted to the KHL 4 year before that playoff series, there was obvious frustration. He was a first round draft choice and had played really well in his first two seasons in Nashville. Head coach Barry Trotz was elated he was coming over for the playoffs that year.
"Maybe now this is a real good thing,” Trotz said, when Radulov came back to the team in 2012. “Maybe now we get back a more finished product, a more mature person and player and maybe this works out really good for us. That's certainly what I'm hoping."
"He's more mature in everything in terms of he's bigger, he's smarter, he's more hockey savvy with more poise," Trotz added. "So yeah he's an improved version which is great because he was a good version when he was here."
After the series and the curfew violation, it was back to the KHL for another four years. Nashville seemed no worse having given it the old college, or in this case QMJHL try. Maybe in private they were dismayed about the whole situation, but the narrative was another Russian player that couldn’t play The Right Way.
“When you get older it’s different because you look at some things like hockey differently on the ice and off the ice,” Radulov said this year, admitting maybe he didn’t always do things that way the team wanted. “A lot of things change when you get older.”
The narrative now is that Radulov, no longer a kid, can play the game the North American way. But his play on the ice was never the problem stylistically.
After Radulov fled to the KHL a second time, he was one of the league’s most dominant players. And it was because he played like a North America hockey player. He went hard, north-to-south, was overly physical and beat the hell out of the opposition with strong body positioning and a difficult to defend physical style.
The problem was, he didn’t talk like he was from Alberta, or a prep school in Minnesota. Now, his rhetoric is cloaked in a team-first mentality.
To the sport of hockey, he’s one of the good guys. And it’s a good thing too, because the NHL sorely missed his talent. The Montreal Canadiens, a team that worships at the altar of tradition arguably more than any other, turned a fear of a dissimilar player into a first-line weapon.