The day the Nashville Predators welcomed back Alexander Radulov, throwing a press conference in his honor, presenting him with his old/new No. 47 sweater, general manager David Poile repeated the line he had been using often.
"We're all in," Poile said.
The Predators were proud to be sitting at the high rollers' table. They were pushing all their chips into the middle, going for the big prize, the Stanley Cup. But the gambling metaphor was apt. When you go all in, that means you're risking everything.
Now the Predators are in danger of going bust. It looks like they were dealt a bad hand. Facing a 2-0 deficit in their second-round playoff series with the Phoenix Coyotes, they have suspended Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn – one of three players Poile added before the trade deadline – for violating team rules. They reportedly broke curfew Saturday night before Game 2 on Sunday in Phoenix, so they won't play Game 3 on Wednesday night in Nashville.
"Pretty easy decision," Poile told reporters. "Our creed is always to do the right thing. I try to do that in my personal life, so I should try to do it in my business life, and we've just done the right thing. We put the team ahead of a couple of individual players, and we'll see where we go from there."
The Predators have done the right thing here – from bringing in Radulov and Kostitsyn in the first place, to suspending them now at such a critical time. But make no mistake: This was risky all along, and this could damage more than the team's chances to win the Cup this year.
This organization has always put the team ahead of individual players. It has had to. That's how Poile and coach Barry Trotz have built a winner despite all kinds of obstacles – a non-traditional market, ownership uncertainty, a low payroll. They have drafted well and developed well. They have brought up their players together. They have created a strong identity.
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But that hasn't been enough. They finally won their first playoff series last year. With their star defensemen approaching unrestricted free agency – Ryan Suter this summer, Shea Weber next summer – they had to seize this opportunity.
Poile added three pending UFAs before the deadline: Kostitsyn, Hal Gill and Paul Gaustad. Then he let Radulov return from Russia. None of the four had anything invested in the Predators' long struggle. The hope was that they would play to win for the sake of it, and if not, at least they would play hard to increase their value for their next contract, wherever that contract might be.
Kostitsyn came with risk. Poile knew that. He had gotten into off-ice trouble with brother Sergei Kostitsyn while they played together with the Montreal Canadiens, and now they were reuniting in Nashville. But the trade market was thin, especially for scoring wingers, and Sergei Kostitsyn had thrived in Nashville.
The Predators asked Sergei about Andrei. They discussed Andrei internally and made an educated guess.
"I don't know Andrei, but I would hope that he would be motivated to come here in a situation where we've got a good thing going right now in terms of our club playing really well," said Poile on Feb. 27. "He doesn't have a contract next year. I made the trade, and I'm certainly betting that he's going to play his best hockey for us for the remainder of this year and the playoffs."
Radulov came with risk. Poile knew that, too. Remember, Radulov broke his entry-level contract when he left the NHL for the KHL in 2008, and he was coming back only because it was good for him. His KHL team had been eliminated from the playoffs, his contract in Russia was up and he could burn the final year of his NHL contract by appearing in a small number of games. There was a question about his character as well as a question about how well he would adjust on the ice.
Again, the Predators made an educated guess. Two Poile quotes from March 21 stick out now in retrospect. The first: "I can't think of a game where I've watched him play where he didn't try 100 percent and give it his all." The second: "Maybe we're getting back a more finished product, a more mature person and player. Maybe it works out really good for us. That's certainly what I'm hoping."
In a sense, boy, have these guys made Poile look stupid and naive. Andrei Kostitsyn confirmed everyone's fears. Though Radulov leads the Predators in playoff scoring with seven points, he looked like he wasn't trying in Games 1 and 2 against the Coyotes – misplaying the puck, loafing on the backcheck, simply falling down. Maybe now we know why. It's as if this nice little franchise just lost its innocence.
But in another sense, these guys have made Poile look strong and principled. There is so much at stake right now – the Predators' chances to win the Cup, their chances of keeping Suter and Weber. There was even hope the Radulov experiment would work out so well for both sides that the Predators would want to keep him and he would want to stay. Yet Poile, one of the most decent men you will meet in hockey, stuck to what really got the Predators to this point. Team. Character.
Poile has to hope now that this will galvanize the rest of the group, especially the core guys who do have so much invested in the franchise and its fortunes. Maybe they will play a strong team game before their home crowd, the kind of strong team game they played before these two showed up, the kind of strong game they didn't play with them in the lineup in Games 1 and 2.
Maybe the Predators will win Game 3 and get back into the series without Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn, and maybe these two will be sufficiently embarrassed – or sufficiently worried about hurting their market value – that that will make amends on the ice. We'll see.
For now, this is a losing bet. But at least Poile and the Predators have won in one important way: What happened in Phoenix didn't stay in Phoenix.
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