Any team would be better with Alexander Radulov. He’s good. Some say he’s the best player not playing in the NHL, whatever that means. He’s a dynamic playmaker who drives, scores, and is made of pure energy. Sure, he makes KHL defenses look like road cones because they are road cones, but he did the same thing to the Sharks his rookie year in the playoffs. This guy is good.
But if you haven’t taken a notice, this team is pretty good too. And with the numbers game already forcing one or more talented player off the ice every game, that situation gets even more compounded when the “very Russian-looking Russian” returns. There’s a place for Radulov in the lineup, and some fans might not want to see it happen, but it makes a great deal of sense.
The top six is set. While Rads is as good as any forward the Preds have, he’s been playing in Ufa against defenses that are the hockey equivalent of the Big XII: very porous. He’ll need to be supported defensively. Given the chemistry emerging with the two top lines, and their proven formula, the remaining parts can forge together a very damaging line.
What’s worked for Nashville, both past and present is the formula of: Playmaking winger, two-way playing forward who passes well and plays defense, gritty guy who cleans up the net area. Two years ago, it was Sullivan/Goc/Hornqvist. Last year it was Ward/Legwand/Erat (in the late season and playoffs). This year it’s Sergei/Fisher/Erat, with Andrei/Legwand/Hornqivst coming into bloom. So with the remaining parts, there’s an obvious combination that would scare some coaches on where to match their defensemen against: putting the returning Radulov with Colin Wilson and Paul Gaustad.
It’s all speculation, just like anything Radulov is these days, but this immediately jumps out as the best benefit to Radulov returning. The playoffs are about solid goaltending and depth, and having a third line to wreak havoc and create matchup problems could be the difference in how far this team can go. The side-affect is what fans might take exception to.
If the top 9 includes the existing upper two lines, and that combination (Wilson plays better on the left wing, Radulov is a natural right wing, Gaustad is a sturdy defensive center with size) is third, the fourth line containing Spaling (it has to, he’s practically Barry Trotz’s son) and other parts. The candidates for right wing are heavy- Jordin Tootoo, Matt Halischuk, Brandon Yip, Craig Smith. Left wing is a bit thinner, with only Gabriel Bourque as the natrual lefty. Given the trending ways as of late between Jordin Tootoo and Matt Halischuk, which one would you play?
Me: Halischuk. Not like it matters, but I’m asking…
Halischuk has had the better season than Tootoo on paper, while Tootoo brings more intangibles. Both seem to have chemistry with Spaling, but you can argue which kind of chemistry is better. Tootoo is good at forechecking, and making the good setup pass. His 23 assists put him third on the team among the forwards. Halischuk has been better at putting the puck in the net, which looks to be key if that’s the line that will be rolled out. Sure, Craig Smith is really good at the whole offense thing, but his defense leaves something to be desired- and this line will be an energy/checking/Swiss army knife line. Brandon Yip and Halischuk aren’t that different in the style of play either. It’s a shame he can’t get more ice time some nights.
The fan reaction for scratching Tootoo will be felt by the casual fan, who will see it as “Wha? Evil Russian guy just comes back from nowhere and takes Tootoo’s spot? NAWWwww”. It’s gonna hurt, but don’t be surprised if it happens.
Just because guys like Tootoo, Bourque, Yip, and Halischuk are scratched at times doesn’t mean that we won’t see them in April. There’s always a Jarkko Ruutu/Martin Erat situation lurking out there to test the depth of any team.