Siberia once was a place people went unwillingly and never resurfaced. For centuries, Russia banished its petty criminals and political opponents there with the idea that they eventually would fade from memory.
Alexander Radulov routinely finds himself there these days and has for the better part of the last four years. It’s a regular destination for anyone in the Kontinental Hockey League, given that three of the league’s 23 teams are based in the region.
His presence there is completely of his own choosing. There is no shame or disgrace associated with it either. It’s quite the contrary, in fact.
The 25-year-old native of Nizhny Tagil, Russia, which sits just 25 miles east of the border between Europe and Asia (far from Siberia), is a trophy of sorts for the league and the Russian Hockey Federation because he bucked the system and ignored all accepted notions of contract restrictions in order to play there beginning with the launch of the KHL in 2008-09.
He’s certainly never been forgotten by the Nashville Predators. A first-round pick in the 2004 NHL draft who combines uncanny offensive ability and boundless emotion, he is — all at once — frustration and fantasy, pariah and possibility.
With the Predators on their way to a seventh playoff appearance in eight seasons and in the hunt for the best record in the National Hockey League, the specter of Radulov and what his return to Middle Tennessee — possibly this season — might mean is more tantalizing than ever.
“He’s a top-six forward that a lot of people would say we’re missing,” Predators general manager David Poile said. “He’s the best player not playing in the NHL.”
“Emotional” is one of the first words mentioned in virtually any conversation about Radulov.
He does not get happy, he exults. He does not get angry, he rages. He does not try to get a laugh, he gladly plays the clown if the opportunity arises. It’s not that he takes part, he immerses himself — in the game, in his rituals, in his relationships.
“He just always has a lot of energy, and he’s an exciting person to be around,” Nashville defenseman Ryan Suter said. “He’s so superstitious and he likes the attention. He’s a beauty in every way.”
To understand the depth with which Radulov feels is essential, because his expectations of others run along those same lines. He doesn’t simply want to be liked. He endeavors to be adored.
That pursuit of acceptance almost certainly has something to do with why he currently plays in the KHL, where he is the two-time MVP and the 2010-11 scoring champion, rather than in the NHL. When he played here as a 21-year-old during the 2007-08 season, many of his more experienced teammates openly questioned his professionalism and his maturity.
“He was put on a pedestal in Quebec City [where he played junior hockey] and was all-world as a junior — really, he was the best junior on the planet when he played there,” Predators coach Barry Trotz said. “When he came here it was a cultural adjustment for him, because all of the sudden he wasn’t the guy. He wasn’t the main guy, and as a young player you crave a lot of that attention.
“He’s not a guy that fits in the box all the time, but he was a guy that was really intense and really gifted at scoring.”
And nothing fuels his emotions like goals.
He scored 93 of them in 127 games over two seasons for Quebec City after Nashville drafted him. His American Hockey League apprenticeship lasted all of 11 games at the start of 2006-07 and included six goals. His 18 NHL goals over the remainder of that season still rank as a Predators rookie record, and he followed with 26 more the following season.
Typically, when the puck goes in the net, Radulov goes off. He celebrates in a manner that infuriates the opposition, entertains the fans and — sometimes — alienates his teammates.
“He’d go celebrate by himself,” Trotz said. “Guys were chasing him around the rink trying to celebrate with him and he was ‘Look at me, look at me.’ … What we wanted him to do was just tone it down so it wasn’t over the top and so it brought him back to our team concept a little bit.”
His effusive reactions — even when someone else scored — proved particularly problematic in the 2008 playoff series against the Detroit Red Wings.
He reveled in a pair of Predators goals nine seconds apart in Game Three with such an explosion of emotion that he knocked then-captain Jason Arnott, who scored the second, off balance so that Arnott’s face hit the boards in front of the bench. Arnott played the next game but missed the last two of that series with what later was revealed as a concussion.
A year later, following his first season in the KHL, he scored the game-winning goal for Russia in a 2-1 victory over Canada in the final of the 2009 World Championships. His celebration drew a negative reaction from several members of Team Canada, which included current Nashville captain Shea Weber, who chuckled at the memory last week.
“He had a lot of energy, that’s for sure,” Weber said. “Maybe that’s where he rubbed people the wrong way. He was nonstop. Even when you’re tired or whatever, he’s fired up and he’s going 100 miles an hour.”
Questions about Radulov’s maturity and his ability to manage his emotions surfaced again a little over a week ago with a brief YouTube video from a recent game that showed him taking a seat on the bench at the end of a shift. He then swung his stick in apparent anger at the glass behind the bench but instead hit a coach in the face. The coach had no particular reaction, and Radulov made a hand gesture that looked to be an apology.
Predators officials reviewed that video and a subsequent one that showed him take a stick to the mouth shortly before he made his way to the bench and drew no conclusions.
“Was it an accident?” Poile said. “I don’t know. We’re seeing something happen. But what happened 30 second before that? What happened 30 seconds after that? I don’t know.
“Based on my conversations, limited as they are, I think there’s been maturity as a player and as a person. Rad has got a personality of his own and a character of his own. That is part of the attraction to him.”
As time has passed, the locker room divide Radulov created during his two seasons with the Predators looks as if it fell along generational lines. Arnott and J-P Dumont, veterans and leading voices at the time, were among the most outspoken critics of his antics.
Now the room belongs to Weber and Suter, players who broke into the NHL at the same time as Radulov.
“He was young and he loved scoring goals,” Suter said. “You can’t beat that. Maybe the older guys that were here before didn’t like that part of him. I’m sure the older guys wished that he would have been a little more mellow, but that’s how he was.
“I loved the fact that he had that emotion. He got guys fired up.”
The Weber-Suter partnership is well documented. Together, they form what is widely considered the league’s top defense tandem. Their leadership, with Weber as captain and Suter as alternate captain, is considered a major reason the team finally got beyond the first round of the playoffs with last spring’s six-game victory over Anaheim.
They are not just teammates, though. They are friends, and five years ago, their small circle included a third member — Radulov.
“We didn’t really have girlfriends or wives here, it was just fun,” Suter said. “When he was here, me, Webs and Rads hung out a lot. He was a fun guy to be around.”
Suter recalled how Radulov routinely amused the other two with a character they knew as the “cabbie” because “he always wanted to drive.” They were three young men from three different countries who shared the common ground of professional expectations and who collectively represented the future of the franchise that drafted them all.
More serious but nearly as frequent moments off the ice took place between Radulov and coach Barry Trotz.
“I spent time with him just talking,” Trotz said. “Almost every road trip I would grab him and talk to him for an hour, whether it be to go for a cup of coffee or he’d come up and sit in my room and we’d just talk hockey. It wasn’t necessarily how he played the game, because he knows how to play the game, and he can really produce.
“It was just trying to get him to go from a boy to a man, a man that you could respect on both ends, on and off the ice.”
Trotz, Weber and Suter all have crossed paths with Radulov at international events in recent years, and each said he took time to catch up with their erstwhile teammate. Likewise, Poile and assistant general manager Paul Fenton have done the same, and Predators European scout Martin Bakula keeps tabs on Radulov’s development.
“I made it a point to talk to him because I’ve known him from before,” Weber said. “We were always friends, and we spent a lot of time together. He meant well. He’s a good guy at heart. I think he was just young. He was new to North America and he didn’t speak a whole lot of English, and maybe people misunderstood him a little bit or didn’t quite get him.”
The apparent friendship and understanding between Weber, Suter and Radulov creates an intriguing dynamic in this drama.
If Radulov craves acceptance and turned his back on Nashville following the 2007-08 season because he felt he did not get it from Arnott, Dumont and the like, he might be more open to a return at this time. Beginning last offseason, Poile has expressed increasing optimism that Radulov eventually would be back in a Predators uniform.
All the necessary mechanisms for him to resume his NHL career with Nashville are in place. Because he signed with the KHL while he still had a year remaining on his entry-level deal, the NHL froze his contract. If, or when, he ever returns, he is bound by that remaining year, and any progress toward unrestricted free agency must be satisfied in the years that follow.
It is a unique set of circumstances that has been painful and has strained relations between the player and the franchise, but it also is one that actually could pay dividends in the short term.
“It’s a sore point with me and our organization that, to my knowledge, we’re the only team that’s ever had a player that’s not honored his contract,” Poile said. “If you don’t honor your contract, you’re suspended. You shouldn’t be free to play in another league.
“He’s the only player that’s ever been able to do that.”
That league, the KHL, concludes its 2011-12 regular season in less than two weeks. Late last week, Radulov’s team, Salavat Yulaev, was in second place in the East division and looked as if it would have the opportunity to win the Gagarin Cup (the league’s championship trophy) for the second straight season.
Once Salavat Yulaev is eliminated or hoists the trophy, the window of opportunity apparently opens for Radulov to come back to North America and to the Predators immediately. Poile said he has no firsthand knowledge of Radulov’s current KHL contract but has been told that it contains an “out” clause.
It’s not as if he ever completely cut ties to Middle Tennessee either. He maintains a residence and an automobile here, and his parents come to town several times a year (as recently as December they attended a Predators game). According to one local real estate source, he’s in the process of refinancing his Nashville residence in a manner consistent with someone who plans for a decrease in income.
His initial KHL contract was for three years with reports that the value ranged from $8-$13 million, and he signed for two more years prior to the 2010-11 season. The remaining season on his Predators deal is for $980,000.
“They’ve been saying that the last three or four years,” Suter said. “You always hear ‘He could come back this year. His contract’s up.’ … It hasn’t happened yet. It’s one of those things that if it does happen it’s a bonus. If not, everything is normal.”
Actually, this season is something different.
Since mid-December, the Predators have won with unusual frequency. They matched the franchise record for victories in a month with 11 in January. They were among the Western Conference’s highest-scoring teams and featured one of the NHL’s most productive power plays — all without anyone considered an elite forward.
Amid rampant speculation as the Feb. 27 trade deadline approaches that Nashville will attempt to add a “top-six” forward, Radulov represents the possibility to add one without having to give up anything in return.
“He’d make an instant impact,” Weber said. “I mean, the guy is that talented and has the ability to change the game. He’s that guy that can take it upon himself to score that big goal or make that big play late in the game.
“He’s one of the most skilled guys, I think, I’ve ever played with.”
There actually is incentive for Radulov to come back late in this — or any — season. According to Poile, if he plays just one regular-season game, he satisfies the remaining year of his contract, which sends him into the ensuing offseason as a restricted free agent.
“The end of this is that everything has been talked about, everything has been discussed, everything has been conveyed to Rad,” Poile said. “The bottom line is that he’s the one who has to make the next move. There’s nothing more that the Predators can say or do or his agent can say or do. The decision lies in his hands as to whether he wants to come back to the Nashville Predators.
“My thinking is that if this ever happened, it would be a bonus — period. I’m not counting on it, not planning on it, not dwelling on it.”
At least one key member of the organization is slightly more optimistic.
“I do believe that inside he wants to play in the National Hockey League,” Trotz said. “And the reason I do is that there are two things that drive Rad. He loves to play the game and he loves the attention of being a great player in the game. He always said to me, ‘There’s no question the NHL is the best league in the world, and I want to be good in this league.’
“He’s going to play in this league again. I just don’t know when.”
The sooner the better — both for him and the Predators.