Ever since he bolted for the KHL and started a mini-war between the NHL and the Russian league, Alexander Radulov has won everything imaginable playing for Salavat Yulaev. He is the reigning KHL MVP, won the Gagarin Cup last year and has become one of the faces of the League.
But the question is still being asked: Will he come back to the NHL?
I made a case before the start of the season that it was very possible that we'd see him back in Nashville this season. While that's not going to happen after all, there are more and more signs that he will indeed come back to the NHL next summer to make the Predators, who are already a solid team, even better.
There will be no hard feelings in Nashville about him coming back, at least not in the locker room. Pekka Rinne said the following to me recently when I asked him how players would react if Radulov came back:
"We, players, never speak about this topic. I think everyone has put it behind. He made his choice at the time and he has been playing [in the KHL] for the last three years. It's been a long time, and it's all in the past now. We have put it behind us. It is going to be interesting. No one thinks about that at the moment. But there is no doubt he is a great, great player. He would definitely make our team better. There aren't that many players on the current team who played with him. For the younger guys and for other guys he will be just like a new player. There are absolutely no hard feelings. If he comes, he will make the Predators a better team."
In an interview with KHL's official magazine Hot Ice, Radulov dropped further hints that he is, perhaps, ready to come back to North America. Asked whether he had any thoughts about coming back to the NHL, Radulov said:
"I am not going to say anything about the NHL because actually I never closed the door on the idea of playing there. As far as Salavat Yulaev is concerned, I have a contract with the team for this year and the next. However, it actually contains [a clause] with a possibility of early termination… I am not ruling out anything. Because if there are offers, we will consider them. But overall I am happy with everything at Salavat. You always want to play for a team that is challenging for something. You want to play to win, right?"
So, Radulov is not ruling out anything, including a return to the NHL. Usually reserved in interviews, Radulov made a point specifying that he has a sort of an "out clause" in his KHL contract. It's also worth noting that standard player contracts in the KHL contain no such clauses.
Radulov also said that he would listen to offers, if they came. He is still under contract with the Nashville Predators and has one year left on his entry level deal.
That means he would have to play out that year before he can listen to any offers, right?
Well, not necessarily.
A story with another Russian winger comes to mind. Alexander Semin had an entry level deal with the Washington Capitals when he went to Russia to play during the lockout, and not the AHL, as the Capitals wanted him to. Furthermore, after the lockout was over, Semin stayed in Russia to play another year. The Capitals sued him and his agent trying to get him to come back.
After all was said and done, Semin did come back after playing out that year in the KHL. But he didn't have to play out that final year of his entry-level contract with the Capitals, signing a new two-year contract instead before the start of the 2006-2007 season.
Is it possible that the Predators and Radulov would just tear up that entry level deal and sign a new, longer contract fast-tracking Radulov's return to the NHL, just like his countryman did 5 years ago?
Believe it or not, but Radulov is a better player now than the one he was when he bolted. With Nashville becoming a really strong team, he will certainly make them even more dangerous ... while they provide him an opportunity to "to play for a team that is challenging for something…to play to win," as he himself put it.