Alexander Radulov said it best: “It’s about time.”
For the first time in almost four years the 25-year-old, high-scoring Russian pulled on a Nashville Predators sweater. He did so at a Wednesday morning press conference, fewer than 12 hours after his return to town and a little more than a day before the team’s next game.
Contrite but hardly remorseful about the fact that he walked out on an existing NHL contract, he promised to give his all to the franchise that drafted him 15th overall in 2004 for the reminder of this season and the upcoming playoffs. Beyond that, his status with the franchise remained maddeningly uncertain even in a moment that throughout the organization was considered a cause for celebration.
“I’m here to play hockey not to worry about other things,” he said. “… I just want to get on the ice and do my best to help the team be better and win. That’s my goals.”
The last step in a process that was years — and countless conversations between Predators officials or players and Radulov — in the making took place early Wednesday when Nashville removed him from its suspended list. That started the clock on the remaining year of his entry-level NHL contract, which would be satisfied with what’s left of the current season. [See the February City Paper cover story on Radulov's return here.]
Nine games remain on the current schedule, beginning Thursday at Pittsburgh (6 p.m., Fox Sports-Tennessee). Anything beyond that remains a sensitive subject, one that general manager David Poile dares not broach at the moment.
“It’s our goal to have him stay here longer, but, again, no pressure right now,” Poile said. “Let’s just have him play, and we’ll talk and see what makes sense going forward for both of us. It’s got to make sense. It’s got to be a fit. We’ll see where it is.
“I don’t think he has any obligations going forward with anybody.”
With the completion of his rookie contract, Radulov will enter the 2012 offseason as a restricted free agent. That means the Predators will retain his NHL rights, regardless of what happens.
Reports out of Russia in recent days, though, indicated that the negotiations that led to his release by the Kontinental Hockey League, where he played — and starred — beginning with the 2008-09 season, included the understanding that he would return there next season.
“There’s been a lot of talking about it,” Radulov said. “I didn’t say anything. I didn’t promise anything to anybody. I just left and I’ve got options to move from Russia this summer. That’s about it. I’ll decide then, or I don’t know how we’re going to discuss my future here.
“… I had this opportunity to come and I wasn’t even thinking about it. I just told my Russian agent to get it all together. … I had a contract [with Nashville]. I have to finish it.”
Poile said he always believed that Radulov would return. The challenge was to figure out when. And how.
Optimism grew last spring when the two met during the World Championships, and Radulov said that his KHL contract did not extend beyond the 2011-12 season. Then the Predators caught a break when his KHL team Salavet Yulaev Ufa lost in the opening round of that league’s 2012 playoffs, which started nearly three weeks ago.
“He never let me down — every time I talked to him he told me he was coming back,” Poile joked. “It wasn’t fun in 2008 when he left. That wasn’t a good thing. Maybe this is going to be a real good thing. Maybe now we’re getting back a more finished product, a more mature person and player.”
Or maybe, they will watch him head back to Russia once again. With Radulov, it is difficult for anyone to say for sure — and that includes Radulov, himself.
“I was talking to David during these four years all the time, and it’s a good opportunity for me to come back,” Radulov said. “Basically, my contract is over in [the] KHL, and I always thought about coming back and making my return back to [the] NHL because it’s a good league and all the best players are playing here.
“I had a contract. I liked it there. A lot like this — I had a good time here too. Times change and right now I’m here. It was a little bit, yeah, not a normal situation. But like I said, times change. Now I’m here and let’s just move forward.”