By Larry Wigge
Every time Nashville Predators GM David Poile heard the phone ring since the 2008 season ... he wondered about Alexander Radulov.
Well that may be a bit of exaggeration, but ...
"Alexander Radulov's name never has left my mind," Poile explained. "The timing is a bit different because his team in the KHL has been eliminated. I've always felt he was going to come back. The hurdles are cleared. He can burn off the year, get himself to free agency.
"From the day he left, I always thought he would come back to the best league in the world."
Radulov, the 25-year-old Russian left winger, left the Predators in the lurch some four years ago. Whether the Nizhny Tagil, native, is here for life or for a year or maybe just a few months is a moot point.
The fact is he's back ...
Radulov scored 91 goals and 163 assists in 210 games in Salavat Yulaev Ufa, after leaving the Predators for the Kontinental Hockey League in 2008.
"In the KHL, he was twice the MVP of the league," Poile said. "He won the championship and played for Russia in the World Championship, winning the gold medal. 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."
After losing in St. Louis, 3-0, in Game 4, Radulov -- he had one goal and two assists -- said he is having trouble adjusting to the new NHL.
"I need to be at the top of my game. It's not there yet," Radulov exclaimed. "It's different game. It's not harder, it's different."
More than just the bigger ice surface. It's a speed game. Transition. And those are changes Radulov has to face.
"I have to make adjustments after four ... five games ... six games," Radulov continued. "Different game between Russian game and here. I just need to work harder."
"Nine games is enough -- hopefully," Predators coach Barry Trotz said of the time remaining in the regular season before the playoffs begin.
Four years is a lot of time to make up for. Before the playoffs, he will have to get used to the smaller ice surface in the North America. And the chemistry with his Nashville teammates will be essential -- Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, Martin Erat, David Legwand, Jordin Tootoo and Pekka Rinne (played in one game in 2007-08 season).
Weber had placed several phone to Radulov. So he had not touch with the former 15th overall in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. He wondered aloud about Alexander's English was going to be. At 21, Radulov scored 26 goals for the Predators in only his second season in the NHL.
"He has gotten a little bit better at everything," Weber said. "He is bigger and stronger. He's getting to the net -- and he likes to go to the hard areas to scorer goals. He's a special player ...
"One of the last things I remember his saying when all the negotiations were going on," Weber contined. "He said, 'We're going to win the Stanley Cup.' "
Trotz remembers the 21-year-old kid.
"He's a more polished player," Trotz said. "On and off the ice, he has gone from a young boy to man. And what he has done in the last week has been remarkable considering what he has been able to go through.
"You can see the poise and the patience are at the next level."
The Predators are counting on Radulov to want to be in Nashville. But ...
"I just left and like I said, I got the opportunity to move from Russia this summer, so that's about it and I'll decide then . . . " Radulov said. "I didn't say anything, I didn't promise anything to anybody."
"I never put a cross on it," Radulov said of returning to Nashville. But ...
"I have a contract in Russia," Radolov continued. "It's not over yet ... I've got options."
Are those options enough to believe the Predators can make enough room under the cap and in the budget to bring back Suter, Weber and Radulov?
"It's hard to answer a hypothetical question like that now," Poile said. "My wish is to sign everybody on our team. We're in a good position by and large. We're one of the youngest teams in the league. I think all the most important players on our team aren't even in their prime.
"He doesn't have a promise to go back and play there. This is an open-ended situation and I try to anticipate that. It's our goal to have him stay here longer. No pressure right now -- let's just play and we'll talk and we'll see what makes sense going forward for both of us."
The conversation was getting a little playful after about 15 minutes. Radulov wasn't caught in the midst of a something-is-lost-in-the-translation scenario that might have been the case when he arrived in North America to play for the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and for at least a couple of months he had trouble understanding conversations his teammates were having, had difficulty ordering food and didn't have a clue about the inside jokes at parties.
Radulov got his endoctorization to the NHL while he was living in with Hall of Fame goaltender Patrick Roy and his family while playing for Roy's Quebec team. Alexander had a great relationship with Patrick's sons, Jonathan and Fredrick. However, sometimes the competitive nature of their games went over the edge.
"Jonathan was a goalie and we had a good friendship, but Frederick was a forward like me and he thought he was better in a lot of things we did together," Radulov laughed. "Especially when we played PlayStation hockey. I would always win and he'd get really rattled, because I was the Predators or the Soviet national team and it didn't matter which team he chose to be."
We watch and marvel at the skills of Russian stars like Alexander Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk and Evgeny Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk show us every night. You can add Alexander Radulov to that list -- he was, after all, the best player in the NHL over there.
"He's got that passion Ovechkin has," Poile explained. "You see that as soon as he's on the ice, whether it's in warmup or in practice. He wants the puck ... there's guys who play shifts where the puck is never around them, but not Radulov. He's always around it and he loves to score."
Playful. Passionate. Productive. Yet there have been hard lessons this season for the ultra-positive 6-1, 185-pound forward who sometimes dazzles you with his speed and skills and other times with his power forward mentality.
"That's how my parents taught me. I'm just excited," Radulov said. "Life is all about being happy and enjoying the time you live. You play hockey. I don't understand when you can be mad or not excited to come to the rink all the time.
"I'm excited about everything with hockey. I've always been like this, since I was a little kid."
Oh, yes, there was a little learning curve for Alexander Radulov in the getting-himself-in-better-shape department coming to training camp as well. Again.
"A lot has changed since I came to North America. Some was clear. Some was not," Radulov admitted. "Hockey is pretty much the same, except for the smaller ice surface. I liked that. Smaller was good for me. But you can't feel as comfortable on the ice as you'd like if you are confused, trying to figure out what people are saying to you or about you. It can be hard.
"The first year I had one Russian on the team in Quebec City and he translated for me. Then he left. I was standing in the corner, staring at the walls, thinking 'Now what?' I went to school for two months. Funny, but I figured out chien chaud or hot dog wasn’t the only solid food I could order at a restaurant or fast food joint."
Two months of schooling, learning a little English and a little French and that competition Roy's boys made things a lot more comfortable.
Alexander Radulov was schooled in hockey the right way, playing for his dad, Valery, and against his brother, Igor, back home.
"My dad taught me you can never rest, never stop working," Radulov said.
He said he watched an admired the way Sergei Fedorov and Alexander Mogilny played and followed their progress closely after they left Russia for the NHL.
Alexander Radulov made a presence in his first two year in the NHL. Now, can he regenerate that same super stardom he was beginning to show in nine games ... before the playoff begin.
Or is there more of this Russian gem to feast on.