(Re: Photo- we know how this ended. Rads is just about… to… jump…)
Locker rooms in professional sports are an elite fraternity. In 2008 with an unsteady ownership and a franchise in trouble, Alexander Radulov bolted for the upstart KHL back in Russia. Nearly four years have passed, and the locker room has changed. New paint, new furniture, new logos, and lots of new faces.
Of the roster in 2008, only David Legwand, Martin Erat, Jordin Tootoo, and both Shea Weber and Ryan Suter are still around. While interviews say that Suter and Weber were both friends with Radulov before he left, and guys like Jason Arnott and Steve Sullivan were opposed to his return. None of this matters except for one thing- does the coaching staff accept him back. And that answer will be quite easy to figure out.
The team is composed of two parts these days – guys drafted and developed/acquired early on, or guys given a second chance/picked up off the scrapheap. The point is: if there’s a locker room in sports that’s “buying in”, it would look like the one at 501 Broadway. Or the one in St. Louis these days. The point being is that the “band of brothers” mentality that’s been forged over the years maybe a little outdated, but it’s still the perception that’s still stuck with this team. They buy in to what the coaching staff sells, and with good reason- Barry Trotz is among the most respected and admired coaches in the league.
All indications from the staff and the front office is that Radulov will be welcomed back. David Poile is in. Trotz, and the staff? They’re in. Skeptical? Sure… but they’re in. That’s all I need to know if he’ll be a disturbance. The leadership is solid, with guys like Weber, Mike Fisher, Pekka Rinne, Martin Erat, and David Legwand lining the roster. It’s a young locker room, with players like Nick Spaling asked to do more than the average 23 year old player in a defensive role. Adding a pure offensive force in Radulov to mix in with the grinding nature of the team (and Colin Wilson & Craig Smith, who are still learning the mysterious ways of “Forechecking” and “Defense”) is exciting, is could be a winning element of contrast.
How angry will the younger players be at a guy who at 22, left a team during the summer to play in a league in the country of his birth, get paid VERY handsomely at a time when the team that drafted him was in less than stable position. Plus, if you rewind back to 2008, the KHL was a real competitor to the NHL. Remember the prospect of the NHL expanding to Europe in order to beat the KHL to that market? This wasn’t the Arena Football League over there, this was the USFL (before Donald Trump’s plan to move the league to the fall) challenging the big league to a fistfight. If not for the solid junior leagues, and the general strength of hockey in Canada (and the emergence of the game in the US) compared to the general vagueness of Russian politics/safety/everything, the KHL could’ve challenged the NHL for the top tier talent.
Of all the variables of his impending return, team chemistry is one of the elements I’m not as worried about. I more worry about him not playing defense and being careless with the puck readjusting to the more physical nature of the North American game. Should he not be in bad positions, and take care of the puck… all will be well.
Radulov is an RFA after year, and with goaltending and the rest of the forward corps in good shape, his returning to the lineup spells not only good things for later this year perhaps, but the assurance that the team has another piece to build around. In a league consisting of 30 teams with rosters of 20 players any given night, having 4 of the top 50 players under the same banner is an exciting prospect.