Jack Todd: Radulov gGamble Has Paid Off in Spades
A mere eight months ago, the Canadiens future looked more dismal and depressing than a comments thread.
A banged-up team had limped to the finish line, winning nothing for its efforts except an early tee time on the golf course. Lame foxhole jokes were the order of the day on open-mouth radio and anyone who suggested the Canadiens might be the best team in the NHL midway through December would have been hooted off the air.
Then in a two-day span in June, GM Marc Bergevin upended the hockey world with a pair of deals. The first sent P.K. Subban to Nashville for Shea Weber to thunderous disapproval. The second (less noticed, but equally disapproved) saw Bergevin sign mystery forward Alexander Radulov from the KHL.
Fans upset over the Subban deal were outraged. If Subban had to go because he was bad for team chemistry, why would Bergevin risk a one-year, $5.75-million deal on a player who might blow up the chem lab?
In retrospect, both deals were brilliant. Weber’s enormous presence has settled this team on and off the ice, to the point where it’s now difficult to imagine the Canadiens without him. Radulov? Truth is, Radulov was not a gamble at all. His jovial, upbeat, positive presence is a big part of the Canadiens success story through the first third of this season.
The real question is how Radulov came to be perceived as a problem in the first place. A big, powerful, jovial forward with a high skill set, muscle enough to hold off any defenceman and an obvious passion for the game, Radulov is like Alex Kovalev without The Enigma’s tendency to take frequent nights off — so why the doubts? Have we really become such uptight, cellphone wielding, social-media addicted prudes that we want no part of a talented player because he once stayed out until 4 a.m. the night before a playoff game?
It’s ridiculous. Had we applied such rules to Guy Lafleur, he would have spent half his career suspended or nailed to the bench, but today’s athlete is expected to be a version of Sidney Crosby: a hockey-playing robot with the personality of a glass of warm milk.
If we didn’t expect hockey players to behave like monks, Radulov’s success with the Canadiens would not have come as a surprise. The ability was there all along. Radulov first appeared on the radar when tore the “Q” to shreds. In 127 games with the Remparts in Quebec City, he scored 93 goals with 193 assists. In the playoffs his second year, he added 21 goals and 34 assists for 55 points in 23 games.
No wonder the Nashville Predators saw him as a future superstar. After productive freshman and sophomore seasons in Nashville, however, Radulov returned to the KHL for four years, resurfacing in North America only for that ill-fated playoff run with Nashville in the spring of 2012. Radulov played well, but drew attention mostly because he and teammate Andrei Kostitsyn violated curfew by returning to their hotel room in Arizona at 4 a.m. the night before a playoff game against the Coyotes.
Coach Barry Trotz suspended the pair for Game 3 — and, just like that, Radulov’s name was effectively mud on this side of the pond. Trotz had his rules and he wasn’t going to bend them. That’s understandable, but the long-term damage to Radulov’s reputation is not. He and Kostitsyn hadn’t embarrassed themselves by dancing on tables, battering women or hanging with mobsters. They simply came in late.
After that unpleasantness, Radulov signed a four-year contract to jump from Ufa Salavat Yulayev to CSKA Moscow and went back to being the mystery man with the title “Best Hockey Player in the World Outside the NHL.”
When Bergevin signed him, the curfew violation drew all the attention, not the more troubling incident in the KHL when Radulov whacked an assistant coach with his hockey stick. (The KHL, you should know, is so wild the coach went right back to shuffling through his papers.)
We know now Radulov was the best “gamble” of Bergevin’s career. He is what the GM hoped to find when he signed Daniel Brière, P.A. Parenteau, Zack Kassian and Alexander Semin. Four strikes and you’re out, unless you can turn up a Radulov.
Watching Radulov wait, wait and then serve up that beautiful pass that gave Max Pacioretty the hat trick en route to a four-goal night in Saturday’s 10-1 demolition of the Colorado Avalanche, you had to wonder how there could have been any doubts about this player.
The Radulov signing didn’t blow up the chem lab. But it might provide the secret formula for the most successful season the Canadiens have had in a couple of decades.