There is no question that Alexander Radulov is one of the best players in the KHL right now, and if he does return to Nashville, he’ll give the Predators an offensive weapon they’ve never quite had since the Sullivan-Kariya tag team from 2005-07. Technically, getting Radulov costs the Predators nothing – he owes Nashville one more year under his rookie contract, but the real cost could come in the future. If Radulov demands an extension worthy of his talents, David Poile is in a huge cap crunch. Under an internal cap (the Predators are operating at around $50 million this year), there’s just no way the team can afford all of Pekka Rinne, Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, and Radulov. Is Radulov worth it?
Strange as it may sound, but it’s somewhat in the Predators’ interests for Radulov to not play well. Under the current CBA, which expires Sept. 15, 2012, there are no limits to second contracts. This is going to be a topic of discussion among GMs during negotiations for a new CBA, because teams don’t want to go from paying a player $984,000/year (Radulov’s cap hit) on a rookie contract to $6 million a year in the next one. It puts teams in a cap bind quickly and also means that players can’t be retained as easily.
Radulov’s situation is particularly unique, but the best comparison is Alex Semin. Semin’s story totally flew under the radar, and few people remember this, but Semin actually made his NHL debut in the 2003-04 season, when he mustered a measly 10 goals in 52 games. He returned to Russia during the lockout and played for Lada Togliatti, but when the new NHL season rolled around in September 2005, Semin never reported to Washington’s AHL affiliate in Hershey, despite having two years left on his rookie contract.
To justify Semin’s absence, Lada argued that Semin had to stay in the KHL because he was still serving his mandatory two-year service (now one-year) in the Russian Armed Forces. Under Russian law, conscripted solders are allowed to serve their terms by playing professional hockey for Russian teams. The Caps and the NHL saw the episode as a major breach of contract, and filed a lawsuit against Semin and his New Jersey-based agent, Mark Gandler, who has also represented Alexei Yashin.
It was a lengthy process, but the US District Court ruled that Gandler couldn’t represent Semin in negotiations with any other team other than Washington. However, when Lada ran into financial trouble and were forced to release Semin as a free agent, he promptly signed with Khimik to close out the 2006 season.
Semin returned to the NHL and wowed with 38 goals, which was then followed up by a $9.2 million, 2-year extension, then a one-year contract for $6 million. This season, Semin is being paid $6.7 million. The general consensus is that the Caps are paying more and more for Semin, but he’s delivering less and less. (FYI, Radulov’s agent is Yuri Nikolaev, whom I know nothing about).
That’s the risk Nashville inherits if they get Radulov back – a real possibility of having to hand out a big contract to retain Radulov beyond this season. No one ever wants to accuse a hockey player of playing just for money, but remember that Radulov left in the first place because the money and ice-time was better in Russia. Once a player leaves, there’s always the threat of them leaving again.
Radulov didn’t leave Nashville or stay in the KHL due to military obligations, but the general idea here is that both players were suspended for breach of contracts, only to return and strike it big. For Semin, that big pay day has already come (and probably gone), but Radulov still has a lot money on the table which he can play for.
If you assume that retaining Radulov is going to cost the Predators in the neighbourhood of $5 million, which makes him Nashville’s highest paid forward, which is justified because he’s by far their most talented, and add the $20 million or so that will be needed to retain Weber ($7-8 MM), Suter ($5-6 MM), and Rinne ($7 MM), the Preds won’t have enough cash to flesh out the rest of the roster. If those numbers were to apply to the Preds’ self-imposed $50 million cap this year, that’s already half of what’s available. There’s no way Nashville can ice a deep team with that kind of cap structure. The Flames struggled with Iginla, Kiprusoff, Bouwmeester, and Phaneuf. Tampa Bay couldn’t keep Lecavalier, St. Louis, Richards, and Boyle together.
But here’s the upside: Radulov is the missing piece Nashville sorely needs, a game-breaking player with high-end offensive skills that can take some pressure off a group of miscast first-line forwards which includes Fisher, Erat, Hornqvist, or whoever Trotz throws out on a nightly basis. Even when Radulov was still a rookie, there was an offensive element to his game that no one else on the Predators roster, even now with the Kostitsyns, could replicate. There’s little doubt in my mind that once Radulov and the rest of the team are on the same page (it’ll happen with Trotz), no one will want to face Nashville in the first round. Heck, before Radulov even suits up for Nashville, they’re already a good dark horse pick.
If the Predators get a long playoff run and legitimize the franchise, Radulov will have shown that, with him, the Predators can win. That’s vital for the Predators going forward. Of the Big Four, with Rinne already signed, it’s up to Suter and Weber to take the paycuts. If Radulov can convince them that he’s the piece the team’s offense needs, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Weber and Suter would be willing to take a little less money for Radulov to stay. The two defensive stalwarts have already said that money isn’t the issue, and that it’s all about winning.
If all else fails, the Predators will have two of the most valuable restricted free agents in Weber and Radulov. Any offer sheet for either player, at a salary above $5 million a season, nets the Predators four first-round picks. Each.
I’m genuinely excited about Radulov’s possible return. It opens up a whole new plot line in what will be Nashville’s most pivotal summer in franchise history. Go big or go home.