Photo by Акутагава, via Wikimedia Commons, creative commons license
Editor's Note: Alexander Radulov's rumored return has sparked the question "What will he mean to the Predators and their Stanley Cup hopes?" The article below was originally published in January of 2011, but it remains valid as a predictor of his NHL performance.
"People were nice to me there, they have good fans, and I liked the organization. My agent actually talked to them during these years. But I don't want to play the speculation game. For now I'm a KHL player."
--Alexander Radulov, on his time in Nashville.
Alexander Radulov liked Nashville, the organization, the people, and the fans. Unfortunately, he didn't like Nashville as much as he likes Ufa or the KHL. When he left Nashville in 2008, he left a fan base and organization in shock. After rumors of a possible return gave the Predators some hope, his return gradually became more and more of a joke for both the organization and its fans, though some still held out hope that Radulov would eventually end his Russian exile. Radulov dashed all of that remaining hope when he signed a three-year contract extension in the off-season, re-affirming his commitment to the KHL and Ufa. If he were to come back to the NHL, he'd have to complete the final year of his entry-level contract, and as Dirk Hoag says, that's a big reason why the NHL may never see Radulov again:
So is this the last time I'll have to write about Alexander Radulov relative to the Nashville Predators? It could well be. As he heads into the prime of his career, I can't imagine him coming back to play out his entry-level NHL contract for less than $1 million. This extension takes him up to the summer right before the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, and it is inconceivable that he would leave Russia to return to the NHL at that time.
Radulov has become an anathema in Nashville. Although the Predators have remained a strong team in his absence, the fanbase can't help but wonder how much of a difference the kid who jilted them might have made.
The Predators suffered two straight seasons of declining goal production after their 110-point season in 2007-08, but the largest drop actually came in Radulov's last season in the NHL. Once Radulov left, the team fell below the league average and the Predators missed the playoffs for the first time in five seasons:
|Year||Predators GF||League Average|
Patric Hornqvist's 30-goal season in 2009-10 has helped to stop the bleeding, and the Predators returned to the playoffs, but their goal-scoring still hasn't gotten back to league average. A look at Radulov's NHLE (big thanks to the venerable, terrifying Gabe Desjardins for the methodology) shows how Radulov has performed over the course of his professional career and what he may have added to the Predators' lineup:
|Year||Age||NHL82 G||NHL82 A||NHL82 P||S/G|
*indicates KHL season
Radulov's NHL seasons were special - he was a young forward scoring loads of points at a young age. Using NHLE as an estimate of his possible scoring in subsequent seasons, Radulov would have been Nashville's second-leading scorer behind J.P. Dumont in 2008-09, and would have led the team in scoring by more than twenty points in 2009-10. This year, Radulov would be on pace to lead the Predators in scoring by over 45 points! His 94-point pace would place him seventh in the NHL's scoring race, behind only Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, Daniel Sedin, Henrik Sedin, Martin St. Louis, and Brad Richards. There's every indication that Radulov has blossomed into a true offensive superstar in the KHL.
Most North American fans, however, don't really know what they're missing. During his time with the Predators, Radulov was in his early twenties and still developing as a player. As such, Barry Trotz gifted the young man an astounding number of offensive zone starts, which had a substantial impact on his numbers:
|Year||Player||OZ%||ZS rank ||Corsi||Adj. Corsi ||Rel. Corsi ||+/-ON/60 ||+/- Rank||PDO|
Notice that Radulov's adjusted Corsi falls into the negative when zone starts are taken into account. The player was scoring, but he was also being sheltered. Obviously, that kind of sheltering requires someone else on the team to take on the tough assignments. Radulov's impact on the rest of the team in those early NHL years is probably best understood by looking at the zone start and adjusted Corsi data for the whole club:
Barry Trotz leaned heavily on Bonk, Nichol, Smithson, and Ortmeyer to do the dirty work in order to protect Radulov early in his career as well as capitalize on his offensive skills. But as Radulov's game improved (and improves), it's likely Trotz wouldn't have needed to protect him, and in fact could use gradually ease him into the power versus power role he's used for many of his top EV players like David Legwand and Joel Ward.
Radulov's story is a shame for the Predators and the NHL as a whole, which is now missing one of the world's top players. Radulov was exactly the kind of home-grown talent - the Russians might have a beef with this characterization - necessary for a small-market team to have long-term success. Radulov's talents may well have strengthened attendance in Nashville, both because he'd likely be among the league's best, and because his presence would have probably meant a bump in the standings for the Preds. Nashville may have even made a deeper run in the playoffs, and who knows, maybe even a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals. That's the kind of success that could have taken Nashville from constant rumors of relocation to becoming one of the NHL's showcase franchises.