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Coldhearted: A Russian Sneak Attack?

Alexander Radulov and Nashville, the battered Bruins, and the rest of the week in the NHL

He was a first-round draft pick once, but all things considered, his team has done just fine without him. (If the playoffs were to begin today, they’d be comfortably slotted into the up-for-grabs series between the fourth- and fifth-place teams.) There were nights they could have used him, of course, whether for his scoring, or his playmaking, or really just his presence. Instead he’s been absent, a conspicuous and even controversial absence that, to look on the bright side, was high-profile enough that it forced the NHL to take action in the hopes that that kind of thing wouldn’t happen again. Now, with just a few weeks to go until the playoffs, he wants to make a return.

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.”

Lighting the Lamp: The Week’s Sickest Snipes

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.)

Piling On the Pylons: The Week’s Worst Performers

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.

Taking It Coast-to-Coast: A Lap Around the League

  • With only a few more weeks to play in the regular season, the Western Conference playoff race is about as close as it can get. Three teams — San Jose, Calgary, and Los Angeles — are just outside the bubble and tied for 78 points, while Phoenix and Colorado currently occupy the seventh and eighth slots with 81 and 80 points, respectively.5 The Sharks and Flames played an important game Tuesday night that ended with a Flames goal in overtime by Matt Stajan for the 3-2 win.6 (It was a fitting outcome: Stajan, like the Flames, has had a tough go of things these past few seasons.) The Flames will play Phoenix, who defeated Vancouver last night 5-4 after rebounding from an early 2-0 deficit, this evening in a game with big postseason implications. The Avalanche, meanwhile, picked up a big 5-4 win of their own Wednesday night, defeating Buffalo in a shootout. Jamie McGinn, who was traded from the slumping San Jose Sharks at the deadline, scored two goals in the effort, including a game-tying tally with two seconds remaining in regulation. He now has seven goals since the trade deadline, while his entire former team has managed just 12.
  • The Eastern Conference race is not quite as tightly packed, with Washington occupying the 8-seed at the moment with 78 points and Buffalo (75 points), Winnipeg (74), and Tampa Bay (71) on the outside looking in. Saturday’s game between the Capitals and the Winnipeg Jets will be the second of a five-game road trip for Washington, and it might be one of the toughest — the Jets are 22-10-4 when playing at the rabid MTS Centre. Sunday’s Buffalo-Florida game ought to also be a hard-fought contest with big playoff consequences.
  • Here’s Alex Ovechkin’s NCAA basketball bracket. It has the look of tortured genius, doesn’t it? Like those math problems Matt Damon solved in Good Will Hunting. It’s only a matter of time before Alexander Semin is in George McPhee’s office wearing pants that are too short and yelling “re-TAIN-er.”
  • Steven Stamkos scored his 50th of the season Tuesday night against the Bruins, making him just the sixth NHL player to have picked up a pair of 50-goal campaigns before turning 23. (The other five? Oh, just some journeymen named Wayne Gretzky, Mike Bossy, Mario Lemieux, Joe Nieuwendyk, and Alex Ovechkin.) What’s most impressive about Stamkos’s numbers is that a full 40 of those goals have come at even strength: No other player in the league has scored 40 goals total.
  • This is a “Pope’s Catholic” thing to say, but Michael Farber at Sports Illustrated has been churning out awesome stuff lately. Earlier in March he wrote a profile of Evgeni Malkin,7 and in the latest issue he wrote about the surging St. Louis Blues. (Thanks to information gleaned from the latter article, I will now never not imagine a paleo-dieting Ken Hitchcock foraging for berries outside the arena between periods.)
  • I’ll give the Florida Panthers’ Krys Barch one thing: I’ve read story after story about NHL player safety and concussions and the like, and I don’t think I’ve ever come across an argument quite like his. (Sample snippet: “I had a Twitter account a few years ago and you look at guys going over to Iraq and Afghanistan and they’re doing it for their country and they’re not getting compensated near as much as we are so why do we have to take less risks than them?”)
  • Nothing to see here, just a picture of the Blackhawks’ Patrick Sharp with his BABYBABYBABY.
  • Sean Avery, who was left off the Rangers AHL affiliate Connecticut Whale’s postseason roster, basically announced his retirement on Andy Cohen’s Watch What Happens Live show on Bravo while sitting next to Nicole Richie, who was wearing a suit and tie, and that really kind of just says it all, you know?8 Good night sweet prince, shine on you crazy diamond, don’t never change, you keep doing you, be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid, etc. And to everyone else out there: Leave Sean Avery alone!
  • “I always said growing up I wish the NBA was like hockey, you know, and let two guys go out there and fight. It would eliminate a lot of the tough guys you think are tough guys in the NBA.” Marcus Camby’s stint in Toronto must have really rubbed off on him.
  • I’m still grossed out about the choice of the verb “poured” in this description of what sounds like the very worst high school hockey championship of all time. (The agony of dehydration and all that.) In better-scripted high school hockey news, Benilde-St. Margaret’s won the Minnesota Class 2A high school hockey championships, held at the Xcel Energy Center before 17,607 fans. I mention this seemingly random game for two reasons: (1) all five goals in the 5-1 victory were scored by junior University of Wisconsin recruit Grant Besse, and three of them were shorthanded, and (2) in attendance was Jack Jablonski, the 16-year-old Benilde-St. Margaret’s player who in December was paralyzed during a game. “We’ve never once treated Jack as a rabbit’s foot or a lucky charm,” said head coach Ken Pauly. “We’ve treated him as a member of our team. It has been genuine. It has been real. It hasn’t been manufactured. It wasn’t something for TV.” It’s been a promising week for the boy who goes by Jabs: On Wednesday, he got his spine and neck-stabilizing halo removed, and as you can see in this photo of him celebrating the state championship, he has regained some use of his arms — contrary to his original prognosis.9
  • After Montreal’s Erik Cole scored a goal Wednesday night, he took advantage of the referees’ goal signal to lay a high five right on the unsuspecting Greg Kimmerly. Cole apologized later to Kimmerly for getting a little too festive. “He was the only one there and I needed someone to celebrate with,” he explained, stealing my go-to excuse from back in college.

Chirping Like a Champ: The Best Mouthing Off

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.

Hockey Haiku

Single-serving site:
Are the Kings in the playoffs?
Existential quiz.

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Katie Baker is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ katiebakes