The Nashville Predators, long known around the NHL as the little team that could, are suddenly doing things in bold, un-Predators-like fashion.
First, they made ambitious, live-for-today moves at the NHL trade deadline, to gear up for a long playoff run.
Now, they’re at it again, shaking up the establishment by repatriating Alexander Radulov, widely considered the greatest talent outside of the NHL, from Russia’s KHL.
If all goes well in the paperwork department, Radulov could be back playing in the NHL by the end of the week, which would give him about a fortnight to familiarize himself with the Predators system and introduce himself to all of his new/old teammates, most of whom have only a faint recollection of him from his first turn around the NHL.
Radulov is 25, and four years removed from a decision that was supposed to shake up the NHL’s cozy monopoly on the best players in the world. The fledgling KHL was doing whatever it could to bring home the best Russian players and Radulov was of particular interest because he was young, talented and had left home so early (to play in the QMJHL for the Memorial Cup champion Quebec Remparts).
His return to Russia was considered a major coup, even if it set in motion a new Cold War between the NHL and KHL over contracted players. Radulov owed the Predators a year on his entry-level contract, worth just less $1-million (U.S.) per season, and he skipped out on it.
It is that contract that he’ll play under to finish up the 2011-12 season – burning off a full year’s commitment in a handful of days which, contractually, would turn him into a restricted free agent.
That is the business half of the equation. At the moment, the Predators are mostly focused on the hockey consequences of Radulov’s decision.
Nashville is comfortably in the Western Conference playoff picture and earned a modest three of six points on a swing through California that ended Sunday. They return home to play the Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday.
Team captain Shea Weber was blunt about the current state of the Preds, noting in an interview: “I don’t think we’re where we want to be. We’re not playing our best. There are spurts when we’re good and you can tell that we can be a tough team to play against, but we need to be more consistent.
“The final 10 games will be good for us – to get playing our best hockey and make sure we’re playing together as a team. I think everyone here believes we can go further than last year. We’ve got a lot more depth and guys that are ready to go this year.”
It was a sentiment echoed by defenceman Hal Gill, who was brought in from the Montreal Canadiens at the deadline to steady the team’s penalty-killing unit and provide some much-needed playoff experience.
Gill’s first impressions of Nashville were good: “It’s a well-coached team, a hard-working team, a young team for the most part. We have the guys to do something here, but it’s about putting everything together at the right time.”
And therein lies the challenge for head coach Barry Trotz: to put everything together at the right time. There are no guarantees Radulov will be a good – or easy – fit.
However, Trotz speaks glowingly of Radulov’s competitive streak and his passion for scoring goals – something the Predators have been doing by committee for more years than they can count. If they now get a real game-breaker into the lineup – someone who can help put them on top of a close, low-scoring game – that could be the difference between a short playoff stay and long postseason run.
It is, at any rate, a gamble they believe is worth taking at this go-for-it moment in team history. “To use a poker term, we’re all-in,” general manager David Poile said.
Welcome to the table, Nashville and congratulations, you’ve got everybody’s attention now.