Alexander Radulov returns
"Nine games is enough -- hopefully," Predators coach Barry Trotz said after Radulov's first practice Wednesday morning.
For a situation frozen since Radulov bolted back home to Russia to be the face of the Kontinental Hockey League, it's been a whirlwind the past two days that the Predators hope propel them to their first Stanley Cup.
Radulov arrived in Nashville Tuesday night, picked up at the airport by general manager David Poile. The Predators lifted their suspension of the forward Wednesday morning, then gave him his old No. 47 at a news conference before he hit the ice on a team that still has six teammates from his first stint in Nashville.
LeBrun: No Issues Here
The Predators are regaining one of the world's top players in Alexander Radulov, and they are welcoming him with open arms, writes ESPN.com's Pierre LeBrun. Blog
He said "it's about time" he returned to the NHL.
The Predators held that number for Radulov, hoping the 15th pick overall in the 2004 draft would return eventually.
"It certainly wasn't fun in 2008 when he left. That wasn't a good thing," Poile said. "Maybe now this is a real good thing. Maybe now we get back a more finished product, a more mature person and player and maybe this works out really good for us. That's certainly what I'm hoping."
More than that, Poile and the Predators hope Radulov is the final piece for the franchise's push to win its first Stanley Cup. The Predators lost in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs last season, and Poile brought in defenseman Hal Gill and forwards Andrei Kostitsyn and Paul Gaustad at the trade deadline trying to plug holes.
The Predators rank fourth in the Western Conference with nine games left, trailing St. Louis by eight points both in the Central Division and for first in the West.
"He's a superstar," defenseman Ryan Suter said of Radulov. "He plays hard and has got a great shot, and it's fun to be out there with him."
Radulov left in July 2008 after signing a three-year contract with the KHL's Salavat Yulayev Ufa despite having a year left on his entry contract with the Predators. Nashville suspended him indefinitely in September 2008, though Poile stayed in touch with him, trying to convince the right wing to return.
"We knew you'd be back," Poile said as he presented Radulov the team's re-designed jersey with his old number.
Trotz said his team leaders were excited at having Radulov back, and the coach already has noticed a different player.
"He's more mature in everything in terms of he's bigger. He's smarter. He's more hockey savvy with more poise," Trotz said. "So yeah he's an improved version which is great because he was a good version when he was here."
Captain Shea Weber had stayed in touch with Radulov by phone and in person at the world championships and other events.
"Obviously, we were hoping he'd eventually come back, and now he's here and it's exciting," Weber said.
Radulov is the explosive, creative scorer that the Predators always have wanted. He is a two-time MVP of the KHL, and the league's all-time scorer with 254 goals. His team won a championship, and he also has played for Russia at the world championships and the 2010 Olympics. Radulov scored 63 points in 50 games this season.
"As I've said, he's the best player not playing currently in the National Hockey League," Poile said.
But Radulov's team lost early this postseason, and his contract expired. The man who kept his home in Nashville along with his car had kept close tabs on the Predators, with his parents even attending games the past four years. He decided the time finally had come to return.
"I'm happy to come back and be here because I mean I play here two years, and I remember all the moments," Radulov said. "It's good to be back here, you know. Feel good and just looking forward to help the team be better. I know it is a good young team. I know some guys from it. We're good friends.
"I do whatever it takes to help the team be better."
Other NHL teams are not happy Radulov did not have to go through waivers on his return. But Radulov remained under contract with Nashville, and the Predators lifted their suspension of Radulov on Wednesday morning.
Radulov will satisfy a full season of his Nashville contract and become a restricted free agent. Both Poile and Radulov said they are focused only on finishing the regular season and the playoffs, though Poile said he hopes Radulov has a longer stay in Nashville.
The president of the KHL has said Radulov will be back in that league next season. Radulov said he did not say anything or promise anything to anybody.
"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.
Poile said there's lots of misinformation out there. The general manager said Radulov told him he does not have a contract or promise to go back to the KHL.
"It's our goal to have him stay here longer. Again, no pressure right now. Just play, and we'll talk and see what makes sense going forward for both of us," Poile said.
Radulov may play Thursday night at Pittsburgh. He hasn't skated in a couple of weeks because there was no ice to work on in Russia, and he also was busy wrapping up paperwork needed for him to leave.
Trotz said he will wait until after the Thursday morning skate to see how Radulov deals with jet lag from crossing eight time zones.
Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press