They seem unrelated, but there is a link between Alexander Radulov's impending return to the NHL and reports that both the Edmonton Oilers and Columbus Blue Jackets will consider trading their (high) first-round draft picks.
"Generally, if a Russian came to North America to play his junior hockey, you believed he wanted to play in the NHL," one general manager said last weekend. "That is a big commitment, but Radulov's situation has changed all that."
Radulov was 18 years old in 2004 when he joined Patrick Roy's Quebec Remparts. By all accounts, he loved playing for the Hall of Famer and thrived under Roy's guidance. Radulov was named the most valuable player in the 2006 Memorial Cup, the maraschino cherry on a season in which he had 207 points in 85 QMJHL games, including playoffs.
Radulov was so good, so quickly that the normally patient Nashville Predators had no choice but to call him up after 11 AHL games. By now, you know the rest of the story. In 2008, with one year remaining on his entry-level contract, Radulov bolted for the KHL. (It's very difficult to confirm this, but a few NHL sources believe Radulov was paid in the neighbourhood of $5.5 million US this season. The remaining year on his NHL salary was worth under $1 million US, excluding bonuses).
While a number of NHL GMs are disgusted that he's being allowed to "beat the system" and burn that "year" in about 10 games (especially if he returns to Russia next year), they're also wondering what it means for the NHL draft. Three of the highest-rated prospects -- Nail Yakupov, Alex Galchenyuk and Mikhail Grigorenko -- are Russians who play in the CHL.
These are three extremely gifted players. Galchenyuk, who was born in Milwaukee as his father played minor-league hockey there, has been hurt much of the season. Yakupov is battling a concussion, but he and Grigorenko seem the consensus 1-2 selections.
It's hard not to write about this stuff without sounding like Senator Joseph McCarthy, but there are a few major concerns for NHL teams.
Radulov isn't the only example. Two other terrific youngsters, Evgeny Kuznetsov (Washington Capitals) and Vladimir Tarasenko (St. Louis Blues), are the gorgeous cheerleaders toying with prospective dates for the prom. They are proof that if a player does go to the KHL, it is excruciatingly difficult to get him back. What happens, for example, if there's a lockout and one (or more) decides to start the season in Russia?
Imagine you're Columbus, Edmonton, the Minnesota Wild, New York Islanders, etc. You'd be thrilled to get one of them to rejuvenate your team. But you'd be terrified of what would happen if the player didn't like the contract, the situation, the organization -- anything. Teams are going to have to work hard to convince these players each potential city is the right spot. It's unusual for draft picks to have this kind of leverage.
"You're really going to have to do your research here," said the aforementioned GM. "You cannot afford to make a mistake."
"It's a concern, yes," said another GM who, depending where the ping-pong balls fall, will have a shot at them.
"But we don't want to say we're not going to take one of them [because they're Russian] ... we're going to have to do our homework to know exactly what each of them thinks."
One agent suggested that the NHL would do itself a huge favour if it allowed a more generous/attainable bonus package in its rookie contracts. But if history is any indication, rookies always get squeezed in collective bargaining. The NFL and NFLPA all but eliminated leverage for draftees in its recent CBA. Over the last three NBA negotiations, entry-level deals tightened every time.
Eight years ago, Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin made it very clear that they wanted to play against the best. They came and stayed. But the KHL was not a factor then. For good, young Russian players, it is now.
1. Emptying the notebook on Radulov: The KHL reached out to the NHL last week, looking to "negotiate terms" of his return. The NHL considers him a "stolen player" and refused. With the Sochi Olympics looming, Alexander Medvedev knows he's got to play it carefully. How important are NHLers at the Olympics to Russia? When NHLPA boss Donald Fehr travelled to Russia in February, Vladimir Putin found time to sit down with him. That's not an easy meeting to get.
2. Even though other NHL GMs are angry about this, the ones I spoke to Saturday admitted they'd do the exact same thing if they were David Poile. A couple of them even laughed as they said it. Said one exec, though: "I wouldn't want to be Gary Bettman if an owner calls after Radulov kills his team in the playoffs."
3. The complaints from other teams about Radulov's return and Sven Baertschi's extended stay in Calgary reveal "the pressure on teams is intense," the exec added. Look at the standings. How many GMs/coaches are on the firing line if they don't make the playoffs or have a deep run?
4. Look, Toronto's 8-0 loss to Boston was ugly in every imaginable way. But on the advice of one former player, I rewatched it looking for something he'd noticed. And it was true -- the Maple Leafs had zero interest in winning races to pucks along the boards. If you're Scott Niedermayer, you can play that way. That's a huge concern for Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle.
5. In the verrrrry interesting category: After Glenn Healy raised the issue on The Hotstove of Tom Renney hiding Jordan Eberle against top lines, the Oilers head coach made sure Eberle saw a lot of the Phoenix Coyotes best Sunday night. That meant plenty of time battling Radim Vrbata, Martin Hanzal, Rostislav Klesla and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Those four are among Dave Tippett's most trusted Coyotes.
6. Healy also pointed out how Eberle, who is ninth in league scoring, plays fewer minutes than his Top 10 peers. Sunday night, he played 22:04, his highest of the season, including 19 minutes at even strength. Both totals were five minutes above his average. Wonder if Renney's trying to make a point to someone.
7. Speaking of Phoenix, 39-year-old Ray Whitney is seven points shy of 1,000. You can tell he badly wants to get it done this season. Whitney's been so good that some nights he looks like he can do it in one evening. He's got 31 points in his last 28 games.
8. Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma to reporters after Sunday's 3-2 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers: "I think, really, the extracurricular stuff was the turning point in the game. It was a situation where you know they targeted players after the whistle and didn't get penalized. I think that allowed them to get back in the game." That's called planting a seed.
9. Despite the loss, don't think it went unnoticed that Pittsburgh outshot New Jersey by 30 and held the Flyers without one for 18 minutes. Scary team.
10. You ask Western-based NHL types who is going to grab the final playoff spot(s) and one team gets the most votes: San Jose. "Too talented not to get in," is the usual comment. But, boy, did they waste a game in hand at home to Anaheim Monday night. Sharks are playing with fire.
11. Steve Mason had several eye-popping quotes in this story, including the fact he "didn't know" he could wear bigger equipment. While that sure doesn't sound great, there is a little more to it. Before Columbus goalie coach Ian Clark got him to switch, Mason was wearing the same stuff he used in his super-successful Calder Trophy season. Can't really fault a guy for wanting to stay with that.
12. Mason was, however, slow to adjust when things changed. He was getting murdered in practice, not to mention games. Apparently, the pads were only slightly modified, but the pants and chest protector are much larger. Will this satisfy the Blue Jackets?
13. Much disagreement with one of last week's notes: That Tim Thomas can handle the increased workload because he's used to it in March and April. Asked a couple of goalies about it and they pointed out how you have to take his style into account. Thomas is so active, expending so much energy, that 63 games for him is like 70-75 for others.
14. Alex Auld didn't specifically talk about Thomas, but used Henrik Lundqvist as a comparison. Lundqvist's also on pace for 63 appearances, but must be measured differently. "Henrik is so efficient," Auld said. "Because he plays so deep, he doesn't need to move much. He's able to take in more [mentally] and there's less confusion going in his head. He's focused. Able to read the play. It's very hard to teach that." As a result, Lundqvist doesn't drain himself mentally, either.
15. Will anyone (quietly) be cheering harder for Air Force in the NCAA Tournament than Glen Sather? If the Falcons beat Boston College, winners of 15 straight, Chris Kreider becomes a New York Ranger. Very curious to see him at the NHL level when the time comes.
16. Speaking of American-based talents, several teams are waiting for West Kelowna's Justin Schultz to make a decision. Drafted by Anaheim and considered the NCAA's best prospect, he has finished his season at Wisconsin and can now join the Ducks. If he waits until the summer, though, the defenceman can become an unrestricted free agent. To Anaheim's consternation, it would be a surprise if he didn't.
17. Good news for Detroit that Nicklas Lidstrom skated Monday. Red Wings GM Ken Holland admitted Saturday he was "frustrated" by the franchise player's lack of recovery from an ankle bruise. (Holland is not quoted anywhere else in this blog). Asked him about the worst-case scenario, ie. Lidstrom missing playoff time, and Holland didn't think so, because that means the captain would be out seven weeks. Detroit doesn't think it's that bad.
18. Get ready to see more officials conferences after scores when there's contact with the goalies. After the GM meetings, a memo was sent to all referees and linesman to consult with one another to make sure they get it right. For example, linesman will be allowed to tell referees if it should be no goal because there was a penalty on the play, even though they're not allowed to call one. Just the same, if one of them sees a defender was responsible for pushing an attacker into the net, the goal can stand.
19. We might again see Vancouver Canucks GM Mike Gillis' proposal to penalize a player who makes a hand pass in his own zone. NHL hockey operations was asked to work on the language of such a rule and determine if there are any plays where it shouldn't be two minutes.
20. The NHL seems pretty confident the Blues' sale to Tom Stillman will get done.
21. I know some Calgary Flames fans were upset that head coach Brent Sutter went with Leland Irving twice over the past three weeks -- critical games that Calgary lost. Here's why I disagree with them: Remember last year when Tampa Bay sat an exhausted Dwayne Roloson in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference final? The Lightning lost that night, but Roloson came back to win the next one before making 37 saves in a heartbreaking 1-0 defeat in Game 7. If a goalie is tired and you don't rest him, you're done. If you do, you've got a chance. Even Miikka Kiprusoff needs a break.
22. That shot from the Montreal/Ottawa game last Friday of Canadiens head coach Randy Cunneyworth and Chris Campoli going at each other didn't go unnoticed. Guys who've played for Cunneyworth say that never happens with him.
23. As tough as this season's been for Montreal, the Canadiens do play hard for Cunneyworth. They killed nine Ottawa power plays Friday night. He's done his best with a bad hand, while Canadiens fans kill a kitten each time Kirk Muller's Carolina Hurricanes win a game.
24. The Canadiens look like a totally different team with Andrei Markov in the lineup. He controls the game whenever he's on the ice. Ask the players how much of a difference he makes and they don't say anything at first. They just roll their eyes. Common sentiment: "Passes always hit the tape of your stick." And with that stone-eyed look, it's all business when he's around.
25. For his part, Markov says he's nowhere near the pace he wants to be, adding he's noticed he's a step behind several times. Considering Montreal didn't want him playing on back-to-back nights last weekend, I can't see any way the organization allows him to play in the worlds. Too much at stake.
26. I was at an Ottawa practice a couple of weeks back and saw Senators skating coach Marc Power filming Jared Cowen with a small digital camera. Cowen was practising turns at the blue-line. He'd do one, then go over to the camera and look at it with Power. Never saw that before. "It helps me to see it right away," Cowen said. "My [right] arm movement was too high and I could correct it immediately."
27. Time to pump Kelly Hrudey's tires. The Erik Karlsson/Ben Bishop mixup that led to Tim Connolly's goal last weekend? He saw it coming. It's not unusual to see a goalie with a new team look uncomfortable when playing the puck behind the net because he and the defencemen don't yet know each other's tendencies and preferences. But Hrudey pointed out Bishop's size added an extra element of danger because it would be easier to hit him with a clearing pass. That's what happened.
28. That said, Bishop's been a great find for Ottawa. As the Senators sleepwalked through the first period of Friday's win, he prevented a second goal that probably clinches a loss. Other teams (Toronto, Tampa Bay) didn't want to give up a second-rounder. But when the time comes to decide between him and Robin Lehner, you've got to figure the Senators get back that pick, if not something better.
29. Of all the hits Karlsson's taken -- and John Scott got him pretty good two weeks ago -- he says the one that stands out came from Joni Pitkanen, of all people.
30. Karlsson had two goals in his first 33 games, 17 in the last 39. Why? He stopped trying to slap it, choosing to get it through with wrist shots. He's incredibly deceptive, always keeping his head up and constantly aiming for different targets. Hrudey and PJ Stock couldn't believe Karlsson fooled Ryan Miller last week with a 25-foot wrister. More on Inside Hockey.
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