The speculation began more than a week ago and on Wednesday it became official. Alexander Radulov, widely considered the best player not in the NHL, is back in the NHL after a four-year absence, joining the Nashville Predators in time for practice Wednesday morning after a long complicated negotiation to free himself from his contract in Russia's Continental Hockey League.
For how long will Radulov be back?
No one knows for sure, not even Nashville Predators' general manager David Poile, who completed the process of repatriating Radulov - one more piece of the puzzle for Nashville as it pushes towards the 2012 NHL playoffs - with great expectations. Radulov had a medical Wednesday morning and was scheduled to accompany the team to Pittsburgh later in the day, where the Preds will play the streaking Penguins Thursday night.
Depending upon how Radulov feels physically – mostly relating to the jet lag that naturally accompanies a long flight from Russia – he will either play against the Penguins, or wait two days and make his return Saturday, at home, against the Washington Capitals.
Either way, the complicated saga of bringing back the 25-year-old Radulov is over – for now. Poile was clear about one thing – Radulov is free of his Russian obligations for the balance of this season. He is here, in other words, for the final nine games of the regular season and playoffs, at which point his entry-level contract will expire and he'll become a restricted free agent. Everything will again be on the table as soon as that happens.
"Alexander Radulov has as many, if not more options than anybody," said Poile. "He can sign with us. He can be a restricted Group 2 free agent. He can go back and sign in the KHL. I guess you call that leverage.
"I think everybody's got to decide on their own. At some point in time, the best players always want to play in the best league and the best league is the National Hockey League. That's how I've always felt about Rad. He's gone back to Russia. He's gotten better as a player. I'm sure financially it's been good for him."
Poile says he's stayed in touch with Radulov throughout the years and noted that Radulov has done the same – stayed on top of the Predators' fortunes, knows who's in and out of the lineup. His English, according to Poile, is also still quite good.
Officially, the Predators reinstated Radulov by lifting the suspension they initially imposed upon him, when he left to join Russia's Continental Hockey League while still under contract to them. Radulov's defection sparked a Cold War of sorts between the NHL and the KHL and there is an uneasy peace at the moment, both sides respecting each other's contracted players and not poaching them back and forth.
"This has been a very complicated process," said Poile. "A lot of things needed to be done, mostly on Alex's part, none of which I was part of. All I know is, he is here and in his words, has fulfilled all his obligations to the KHL."
There are six holdovers in Nashville from Radulov's first go-round with the team: Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, David Legwand, Kevin Klein, Martin Erat and Jordin Tootoo. He also played briefly with goaltender Pekka Rinne in the minors.
The question - of how he'll fit and of how the Predators' chemistry could be disrupted by inserting a player who will gobble up important minutes and power play time – is front and centre on everybody's mind, Poile's included.
According to Poile, Radulov has maintained a relationship with some of the Predators' players over the past four years. Combined with seeing him interact with his new/old teammates, Poile predicted: "I really don't think there'll be much of a transition. I really think he'll fit in fine with our hockey club.
Radulov will need to adjust to the smaller North American ice surface.
"From what I've seen, he's more mature than when he left here; he's just better," said Poile. "You have no certainties of anything, but I feel pretty confident that whatever adjustments he has to make, he is the level of player that will be able to make them quickly. I want to be very positive. I think he's going to have a good effect on our hockey club.
"At 22, he scored 26 goals for us. He's been the MVP twice in the KHL. His team has won one championship ... Whenever there's been a big game, a big stage, Alex always seems to shine on the big stage."
And if the Predators' budgetary restrictions and the need to sign both Suter and Weber to contract extensions means there's no money left over for Radulov, so be it. The Preds can always trade his rights to another NHL team, with more money to spend.
"It is certainly our hope that this relationship lasts longer than these nine games and playoffs," said Poile. "We've had that conversation with Alex and his agent, but to me, there's no timetable and no pressure. If this is the right fit, that's great, maybe we'll live happily ever after.
"If it's not the right fit, we've done the best we can and we'll go from there."