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Puckin' Around With Spector

Whither Radulov?

Alexander Radulov’s return to the Nashville Predators in March after a nearly four-year absence generated considerable commentary over whether or not his presence would bolster the Predators offense, as well as questions about his off-season intentions.

In the summer of 2008, Radulov bolted for the riches of Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League while still owing the Predators the final season on his entry-level contract. During his four seasons in the KHL, he would become their most marketable star, as well as one of their best paid, earning considerably more than the $918K per season he made with Nashville.

Despite playing only nine regular season games with the Predators and participating in this year’s playoffs, he has fulfilled his contractual obligation to the club.

Naturally, that’s given rise to speculation over whether Radulov re-signs with the Predators this summer, if they might instead trade his rights to another NHL team, or if he’ll return to the KHL.

Whatever the scenario, Radulov will benefit.

In his nine game regular season comeback with the Predators, Radulov displayed few signs of struggling to adjust to the NHL game, netting seven points (3 goals, 4 assists), stoking anticipation he would provide a significant boost to the Predators offense in the post-season.

In the first four games of their Conference quarterfinal series against the Detroit Red Wings, Radulov had three assists. Not bad, but probably not the offensive presence the Predators were hoping for.

Unquestionably, the Red Wings consider Radulov a significant offensive threat and have focused on neutralizing him, but some analysts suggest he’s still not making the most of his offensive opportunities.

This could still be part of the adjustment period for Radulov, having to ramp up his game to playoff intensity with less than ten games of NHL action under his belt.

Still, for those expecting Radulov to become the Predators top offensive post-season threat, his performance thus far could be considered a letdown.

It’s obvious his future with the Predators will be determined by his playoff performance. If he isn’t more of an offensive factor, and the Predators fall short of advancing to either the Conference Final or Stanley Cup Final, it will cast doubt over his future in Nashville.

Of course, any failure to go deep in this year’s playoffs on the Predators part won’t be the result of the performance of just one player, but should Radulov fail to perform to expectations, a disappointed Nashville fan base could single out the prodigal son as a convenient scapegoat.

Radulov’s critics will certainly pounce, likely to label him an opportunistic underachiever.

On the other hand, if he finds his offensive groove as the playoffs grind on, Predators management will be pressured to find the cap space to keep him in the fold.

Prior to the playoffs, Predators GM David Poile said his intent was to re-sign Radulov, restricted free agent captain Shea Weber and pending UFA blueliner Ryan Suter, claiming team ownership had agreed to increase payroll for next season.

The problem, however, is how much Poile can comfortably spend to retain all three, and still flesh out the remainder of his roster.

Retaining Weber and Suter could cost a combined $14 million per season, pushing the Predators payroll above the current $31.9 million to nearly $46 million for 14 players.

The Kostitsyn brothers, Colin Wilson, Paul Gaustad, Jordin Tootoo, Hal Gill, Francis Bouillon and Ander Lindback have to either be re-signed or replaced.

It remains to be seen what Radulov’s salary demands would be, but considering he could be paid $5 million to return to the KHL next season, one would expect he’d seek that much per season from Poile on a long-term deal.

Depending on where the salary cap is for next season once the new CBA is implemented, and assuming Weber and Suter are re-signed to long-term deals, there might not be enough to keep Radulov in the fold, regardless of how he performs in the playoffs.

It could potentially make Radulov a target for an offer sheet from a rival club if he’s unsigned by July 1st. True, offer sheets haven’t been a significant threat in recent years, but given the uncertainty this summer over the upcoming CBA talks, one shouldn’t fully dismiss the possibility, especially if he should elevate his game and help the Predators march to the Stanley Cup Final.

If Poile is unable to retain Weber and Suter, and instead re-signs only one or the other, that could free up sufficient space for Radulov’s new salary, leaving sufficient space to re-sign other key players, and flesh out the remainder of the roster via trades, free agency or rookie additions.

Determining Radulov’s plans over the past four seasons was a guessing game, which will not only continue after the playoffs, but could become more intriguing this summer.

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About Puckin' Around With Spector

I’m Lyle Richardson. You might know me from my website, Spector’s Hockey, my thrice-weekly rumor column at THN.com, my weekly column at Eishockey News (if you read German), and my former gig as a contributing writer to Foxsports.com.

I’ll be writing a once-weekly blog here with my take on all things NHL. Who knows, I might actually find time to debunk a trade rumor or two.