Alexander Radulov's return, performance raises expectations for Predators

Tuesday, March 27, 2012 at 1:31am

Shea Weber was concerned that something might get lost in the translation.

Even so, the Nashville Predators captain wanted to hear it for himself, if at all possible. The Predators were in Los Angeles, halfway through a four-game road trip out West and there were daily — and sometimes contradictory — reports of Alexander Radulov’s impending return to the NHL.

So Weber went right to the source. He sent a text to Radulov.

“He called me right away,” Weber said. “I wasn’t sure how good his English was going to be. But it’s good. He understood everything and I could understand him.

“… The first thing he said when I talked to him about coming back was ‘We’re going to win the Stanley Cup.’ ”

Message received. Loud and clear.

Less than a week later Radulov and Weber were in the same locker room sharing memories, laughs and the burden of expectations.

Already high following last season’s first-round, postseason breakthrough and the subsequent six-game series with eventual Western Conference champion Vancouver, belief in the Predators and their prospects for playoff success soared with Radulov’s much-discussed and mildly disputed return from self-imposed exile in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League.

Often considered the missing piece during his four years away, he came back to the Predators weeks after other notable additions, namely defenseman Hal Gill and forwards Paul Gaustad and Andrei Kostitsyn at or near the NHL trade deadline. Many already considered Nashville’s roster the most improved from the start of the season.

Suddenly, the Predators had more quality and quantity in its locker room than ever. Its active roster included 17 forwards. Six of them, including Radulov, had scored 25 or more goals in an NHL season at least once.

“Obviously he’s a great player and he’s going to help us,” Suter said. “That’s what you want. … He has all the tools. He’s got a lot of energy. He loves playing the game and I think that’s the biggest thing.

“When you love something the sky’s the limit and for him that’s the case.”

The question is whether or not the expectations for him and for the team now are too high — if there is such a thing.

At the time of Radulov’s arrival, Nashville already was in the midst of one of its best regular seasons. It had earned at least a point in 50 of its 73 games and had gone nearly three months without consecutive regulation defeats. Its top two defensemen, Weber and Suter, each were invited to play in the NHL All-Star Game. Goalie Pekka Rinne led the league in wins.

Despite all of that, Thursday’s game at Pittsburgh — Radulov’s first in the NHL in nearly four years — began with the Predators fifth in the Western Conference standings.

“There’s a lot of favorites in the Western Conference,” coach Barry Trotz said. “I think we have the ability to be one of the favorites, yes, because we’re a deep team.

“It’s not necessarily the team with the best players that wins. It’s the team that plays the best.”

To win the Stanley Cup, Nashville — just like any other team — still must win four best-of-seven series in succession. That is three more than it has ever won in a postseason.

For his part, Radulov knew exactly what he was getting into.

Always an enthusiastic student of league history, he impressed general manager David Poile during discussions in recent years with his knowledge of Nashville’s team and the performance of its players.

“I was always watching, like following,” Radulov said. “… They have a good team and to be a part of it, I’m really excited about it. I’m looking forward to come and help and do my best for the guys, the team, for the fans, everybody.”

His personal playoff history with the Predators only adds to the optimism.

The last time, 2008, he shared the team lead with four points (two goals, two assists) in a six-game series with Detroit. A year earlier he tied for second with four points (three goals, one assist) in four appearances during a five-game series with San Jose.

“In the KHL he was twice the MVP of the league,” general manager David Poile said. “He also, with his team in Ufa, won the championship. He played for Russia in the World Championships and they won a gold medal, and he played for Russia in the 2010 Olympics.

“Every time there’s been a big time, a big stage, Alex has always come through at a high level.”

Then again, with Radulov it is the unexpected that can have the greatest impact. His sudden departure for the KHL in 2008 while still under contract with the Predators strained relations between Russia and the international hockey community.

Even Weber got more than he bargained for when he reached out that day in Los Angeles.

“I just wanted to hear from him,” Weber said. “You hear all the speculation and what-not. … This time I just wanted to hear whether or not he actually was going to come.”

He heard everything he wanted and more, and in no uncertain terms.

“Now that he’s back in the NHL he’s got a chance to show people how good he is against the best players in the world,” Weber said. “He wants to win and, obviously, he won his championship last year in Russia.

“So he knows a little bit about what it’s like to win.”

It’s a concept that translates perfectly, in any league and any language.

1 Comment on this post:

By: ajinnashville on 3/27/12 at 1:52

Great story, David. :)
My life is an open book. Here's hopin' it's not a short story.