Oh, and in related news, Sidney Crosby will come back tonight against the New York Rangers.
This isn't about Crosby, though. It's about Alexander Radulov, the 25-year-old whom Nashville GM David Poile has called "the best player not in the NHL." That's because Radulov, who was drafted by the Predators in 2004 — a year before Crosby went first overall, and the same year that Crosby's teammate, Evgeni Malkin, was selected second — walked out on his entry-level contract before the start of the 2008 season (after putting up 37 and 58 points in his first two seasons with Nashville) to sign with a Kontinental Hockey League team in Russia that successfully dangled big bucks in front of the right wing.
Radulov's return to Russia was, at the time, the latest in an escalating cold war between the NHL and the KHL. Radulov had one year remaining on his NHL contract when he signed a three-year deal with Salavat Yulaev Ufa that made him the highest-paid player in Russia, and his return sparked an icy but heated confrontation between the two leagues1 (with the IIHF also involved) in which the KHL argued that the agreement between it and the NHL to honor one another's contracts had been inked five days after the Russian league poached Radulov — and therefore was not applicable in this case.
Since then, Radulov has continued to be a part of the Predators organization — they have him on a reserve list as a suspended player, and maintain that he still owes them a year of contractual duty — while amassing accolades in Russia: He's a two-time KHL MVP who has scored 91 goals and 163 assists over four seasons, and he's been a part of two gold medal-winning World Championship teams.
With the Predators making a concerted push for the Stanley Cup this season and Radulov's KHL team knocked out of the playoffs, the inevitable speculation that he might be mulling a return to the NHL began. The Predators remain blasé — "Until I see the whites of young Radulov's eyes,2 I won't prepare for it," said head coach Barry Trotz, delightfully. "Yesterday a couple of people tweeted me or phoned me and asked me if he's coming back? [Shoot] if I know."
Trotz's attitude made sense — ever since Radulov left for Russia, his potential return has been something of an annual question. This time around, though, everything appears aligned: The Predators are hoping to go deep into the playoffs, and Radulov could satisfy the year left on his contract by merely playing a handful of NHL regular-season games, which would then make him a potentially lucrative free agent this summer in a year when there won't be many players to go around.
When the NHL's general managers gathered for their periodic meeting early this week in Boca Raton, Fla., they discussed player safety, whether to bring back the red line or instill some form of hybrid or no-touch icing, and whether to remove the goalie-limiting trapezoid. They also talked about Radulov. Many Central Division GMs in particular bristled at the idea that Radulov could return so late in the season and be eligible for the playoffs despite the fact that the trade deadline has passed, noting that it could set a "dangerous precedent." (Poile responded that there will be no precedent because the loophole has been closed. "Nobody else has been through this as we have," he told Scott Burnside. "The NHL and KHL have made a deal after the fact. It's like, 'We're not going to take anybody else's players.' What about Radulov? 'Well, after Radulov.'")
The GMs were undoubtedly nervous that Nashville — already a strong team, and already one that "won" the trade deadline — would be able to pick up such a skilled player on such short notice. (While there's no guarantee that he'd fit into the locker room, the recent successful acquisition of Andrei Kostitsyn to play alongside his brother Sergei gives the Predators hope that they'd be able to re-integrate Radulov.) And Russian fans, too, were nervous that he might depart: His fans put together this video to convince him to stay. According to Russian journalist Slava Malamud, the lyrics include: "Your Swiss banking accounts just keep growing and growing / If you like to be this wealthy, if you like to be this happy / You just stay right here, Radu, and you will be our king." (They also assure Radulov that "Nobody will touch you here, you can go and Tweet whatever.")
Both the rival GMs and the worried fans may yet get their wish: While it was reported this morning that Radulov indeed does want to return to the NHL (and while Wikipedia, for a time, optimistically reported that the winger is "best known for helping the Predators win the Stanley Cup in 2012"),3 it seems there may be a bureaucratic snag in the plans: His KHL team does not want to release him and lose his rights, and unilaterally ending his contract would come at significant financial cost to him.
"We are talking with Salavat's management," Radulov's Russian agent, Yuri Nikolaev, told Sovetsky Sport, according to Puck Daddy's Dmitry Chesnokov. "No one is delaying this matter. But what can you do if the contract runs through April 30? I am pleading to somehow resolve this problem. But I cannot find arguments yet."
The easy joke, particularly for scorned Predators fans: Wait, NOW Radulov suddenly cares about his contractual obligations? But it was Radulov himself who helped usher in the (still somewhat uneasy) era of peace between the NHL and KHL in the first place, and the result could be that the Iron Curtain is, for the time being, pulled shut. While this is disappointing news for the Predators, it's a victory for any of their potential playoff opponents, and for now it might well be the calmest solution for everyone involved. As John F. Kennedy said in 1961: "A wall is a hell of a lot better than a war."
Honestly, there were so many great goals this week that I'm forced to declare awards by category.
Best Goal by a Rookie:
Runner-up: This slippery skating by the Predators' Craig Smith against the Phoenix Coyotes on Monday.
Winner: Gabriel Landeskog's overtime-winning goal and subsequent World Cup-level celebration:
Best Goal Against the Montreal Canadiens by a Buffalo Sabre Named Tyler:
Runner-up: Tyler Myers's overtime winner.
Winner: It may not have won the game, but Tyler Ennis's deft hands win my approval.
Best Defense-to-Offense/One-Man-Against-the-World Rush:
Honorable mentions: The Oilers' Taylor Hall blocks a shot and barely even needs to corral the puck to get it into the net; the Capitals' Brooks Laich steals the puck in the neutral zone and skates in for the goal; and Winnipeg's Blake Wheeler cuts through the Flames before lighting them up.
Runner-up: Brad Richards has scored five goals in the Rangers' last three games. This was one of the best.
Winner: This Chris Stewart backhand against the Blue Jackets on Saturday will be added to all of Canada's math books next year to help teach schoolchildren the meaning of an acute angle.
Best Shootout Attempt:
Anti-Winner: Poor Dmitry Orlov. I wonder if Devin Setoguchi sent him a commiserating text.
Winner: Jim Jackson called it a "sick move!" Scott Hartnell called it "dirty — one of the nicest I've ever seen." But Claude Giroux had a simpler term for the shootout move that left Toronto goalie Jonas Gustavsson sprawled in the wrong direction: The Datsyuk. "I saw him do it a couple times and he's got some pretty sick moves," he said. "I've been working on it since I was young."
Best Game-Tying Pass From Valtteri Filppula to Henrik Zetterberg:
Runner-up: The first one in the Detroit Red Wings' game against the L.A. Kings, a perfect setup for a one-timer that tied the game 1-1.
Winner: The second one in the Detroit Red Wings' game agains the L.A. Kings, a spinorama setup for a quick slot move that tied the game 2-2. (Filppula would later score off assists from Zetterberg and Brendan Smith to tie the game 3-3; the Red Wings went on to win 4-3.)
Things have not gone well for the Bruins lately, but at practice on Wednesday they nearly went from bad to worse. Zdeno Chara — he of the glass-shattering hits — drove Milan Lucic into the boards hard enough that, according to the Boston Globe's Kevin Paul Dupont, "practice stood still while the pair of heavyweights slowly picked themselves [up]."
The Bruins, as a team, will have to do the same if they hope to regain the form that saw them blow through the months of November and December with a 21-3-1 record. Boston hasn't won three straight games since that stretch, and hadn't lost three straight since before it began — that is, until Tuesday night, when the Bruins dropped their third in a row in a 6-1 clunker against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
In net for the beginning of the onslaught was goaltender Marty Turco, whom the Bruins signed in a desperation move after backup Tuukka Rask went down. But when he was pulled for Tim Thomas, last year's Conn Smythe and Vezina trophy winner didn't fare too much better, giving up two goals on five shots, and Turco was put back into the game. ("To have that kind of start I couldn't draw it up any worse," Turco said.)
As many are quick to point out, Thomas (and the rest of the team, really) has looked human ever since he refused to visit the White House with the team in mid-January. But as Cam Charron argues, the Bruins had already been on a comedown before Thomas exercised his rights as a Free Citizen to stay home from Washington. "The pre-White House Bruins were an excellent team that blew by the opposition," wrote Charron, "but that was helped along with an unsustainably high shooting percentage4 that made the team look just a little bit better than it really was."
Still, while a correction may have been inevitable, the team seems to have snapped back to reality a little too hard, playing at a pace since the New Year that would make them a lottery team if they kept it up for a whole season. The Bruins have battled injuries — not just to Rask, but to the essential Nathan Horton (concussion) and Patrice Bergeron (foot) as well as Adam McQuaid — but even the healthier members of the team have appeared downright sluggish of late.
Joe Haggerty calls it a "hangover," head coach Claude Julien calls it "fatigue," and the Ottawa Senators call it an opportunity: The Bruins' Northeast Division opponent has climbed to within just one point of the Bruins for the divisional title and the no. 2 seed, although the Bruins do have two games in hand. (If Boston were to be overtaken by the Senators, though, they would likely fall down to no. 7 for the time being.)
The Bruins play the Florida Panthers tonight and hope to avoid their first four-game losing streak of the season, but it won't be easy: The Panthers are looking over their shoulder as well, trying to hold off the Washington Capitals' push for the Southeast Division title.
Contrary to what Whitney Cummings might have you think, sometimes the most cutting words you can say are none whatsoever. Washington Capitals coach Dale Hunter was uncharacteristically (and successfully) vocal last Thursday night following the second period of the Caps' big divisional game against the Tampa Bay Lightning. But the next day it was revealed by CSN Washington's Chuck Gormley that Hunter has been quiet around some of his defensemen — the vaguely sinister, "a little too quiet" kind of quiet.
With blueliner Mike Green facing suspension for a hit on Tampa's Brett Connolly in Thursday night's game, Gormley wrote that the two defensemen who might be expected to take his place in the lineup, Roman Hamrlik and John Erskine, had not spoken with Hunter in weeks. "Who? Dale?" he quoted Erskine as saying. "He hasn't talked to me one little bit.10 I talk to [assistant coaches] Deano [Evason] and Jimmy Johnson here and there, but that's about it."
With Green suspended three games, Hunter opted to put Hamrlik back in the lineup, who had not played since his "I learned it by watching YOU!"-style comments about Hunter and penalties back in late February. And so, while the Caps have admittedly begun to take a few strides forward, winning four straight games, Erskine remains a nightly healthy scratch. Which means I continue to imagine Dale Hunter standing two feet away from him in practice and theatrically being all, "Deano, can you please tell John that we'll begin at the whistle?" I know I loved pulling that trick myself in, like, middle school.
Are the Kings in the playoffs?
For years, the KHL had been on the other side of the table, most famously losing Alex Ovechkin and Malkin, who defected from a training camp in Finland in 2006.
Here is a picture, from Radulov's rookie season, of the whites of said eyes. I'm starting to wonder if Radulov was the girl on the cover of National Geographic.
The Encyclopedia Britannica just rolled over in its freshly dug grave.
The Bruins shot 11.4 percent during November and December; it is generally the case that shooting percentages, in the long run, don't persist at levels any higher than 10 percent.
According to the NHL TrueStandings site, though, which looks not at total points but at winning percentage in order to adjust for the different number of games played, it's actually Phoenix and San Jose in seventh and eighth place, with Colorado dropping to 11th by virtue of having fewer games remaining than anyone else in the West.
Sean Leahy called the aftermath of the win "the first ever documented moment of extended happiness for Brent Sutter."
I'm still mad, by the way, that my attempt to get Grantland's Bill Barnwell to put money down for me on the ridiculous 40-1 odds that Malkin would win the Hart was stymied because you can't place a bet in Vegas on something that is determined by a vote. This is like when I sold Apple stock at $36 back in the day.
Also, has anyone ever seen Sean Avery's voice and Ryan Phillippe's character from Cruel Intentions in the same room?
Other good news: Jenna Privette, an 18-year-old high school hockey player who was also paralyzed after a hit in a Minnesota game, regained feeling in her legs and has returned to school.
According to Gormley, Erskine said that Hunter had not spoken to him since Jan. 18, nearly two months ago.