This was supposed to be the Nashville Predators year.
The organization had loyally stood by Head Coach Barry Trotz and General Manager David Poile as they rose from expansion team through middling playoff contender status to now, where they have legitimate Stanley Cup aspirations. Of all years, 2011-12 was supposed to be the year.
Poile shelled out first- and second-round draft picks that brought back impending unrestricted free agents Paul Gaustad and Andrei Kostitsyn. Earlier in the season the team signed goaltender Pekka Rinne to a massive seven-year contract extension, locking up a franchise goalie and sending the message that they were willing to accommodate their star players. These moves were made with a bigger goal in mind, one that came to fruition soon after the trade deadline.
Alexander Radulov, once a highly-touted prospect in the team's farm system, was coming back after deserting the team following the 2008 season. The move angered many NHL executives and fans and was a clear circumvention of the CBA. Radulov didn't have to clear waivers and was free to report to the Predators.
His first game, on March 22 against Pittsburgh, ended in a Predators loss. Radulov logged nearly 16 minutes of ice time and scored that often elusive first-goal-after-ditching-the-team. The excitement intensified in the Music City.
Fast forward to May 1, and Radulov has been suspended by the very team that drafted him in the first round in 2004, signed him to a standard NHL Entry Level Contract two years later, watched him abandon ship for greener pastures in the KHL, and fought tooth and nail to bring him back across the Atlantic.
The reports are that he and Andrei Kostitsyn violated their curfews before Game 2 against the Phoenix Coyotes on Sunday. Radulov's effort in that game was questioned several times by media members, including a well-publicized rant by NBC's Keith Jones. Radulov logged 15:17 in Game 2, a stark decline from the 21:28 he played in the first game of the series.
Preparing for a time of the season where character always prevails over pure skill and talent, was bringing Radulov back a pure mistake on the part of the well-respected Poile? The lack of effort on the backcheck, missed defensive assignments and body language are all a part of Radulov's skill set, along with being a dynamic offensive force when motivation seems to find him.
For a team not only attempting to advance past the second round for the first time in franchise history but also auditioning for their own players as a long-term competitor (see Ryan Suter and Shea Weber), the Radulov signing could be catastrophic in that respect as well. Weber, the team's captain, is not signed beyond this season. Suter is in the same position but will have his choice of suitors on July 1.
Neither these two nor the rest of the team could possibly be thrilled that a third of the team's top-six forwards, players the organization invested heavily in, will be absent in a critical game three.
On the other hand, were questions of Radulov's character answered already? This is a man who turned his back on the team that gave him an opportunity to play at hockey's highest level. Now, once again, Radulov's pure selfishness has put the Predators organization in another bind. What else could he possibly do to offset what was supposed to be a lengthy playoff run?
After heartless outbursts like this, it's hard to imagine Barry Trotz wanting Radulov's habits to rub off on the team's younger players. It's a rough situation when the question, "have you ever seen Alexander Radulov block a shot?" is not an actual question but rather a punchline.
The Radulov situation endured by the Nashville Predators serves as a lesson for all armchair general managers out there. When it comes to the playoffs, character will always prevail over talent and skill. It is that sentiment that may be the team's downfall in these playoffs.
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