It’s what-if week here at SB Nation, and boy oh boy does this franchise have a lot of crossroads throughout its history. You have the Stanley Cup run, the many run-ins with the Blackhawks, the team itself potentially not even staying in town, draft luck, and playoff heartbreak. Among all of these there’s one potential alternate history that stands out, for me at least: what if Alexander Radulov, coming off of a 58 point, 26 goal season at age 22, never leaves Nashville and signs long-term? Hop in y’all; it’s gonna be a wild ride.
Radulov wasn’t a typical Barry Trotz or David Poile player, with his electrifying skill and... well, let’s call them defensive deficiencies. In the opinion of many (myself included), he represented a potential change in mindset when it came to the organization’s process. Nashville had many homegrown defensive pieces on the rise in Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, Dan Hamhuis, and the veteran Kimmo Timonen; they had a 28-year-old, cheap goaltender coming off of a career year in Dan Ellis (13th among all goalies that year in Evolving Hockey’s WAR, called EWAR) and a prospect they felt enough confidence in to trade away Tomáš Vokoun: a 26-year-old Pekka Rinne.
Radulov’s success told Poile that he could go get stars and take chances on high-upside talent, so he began to swing for playoff pieces. Adding Peter Forsberg from the Flyers for a hefty sum was a pretty uncharacteristic move for early Poile and Trotz, but they did it because they knew adding flashy players like Forsberg would draw fans to their fledgling franchise. Radulov provided hope for the future, and JP Dumont and Jason Arnott added scoring as well as veteran presence for the fledgling star.
The future looked bright on offense, starting with the young Russian set up to be the first great homegrown attraction in Nashville hockey.
Then the summer of 2008 happened, and all hell broke loose.
The KHL and NHL began a massive battle over the way that contract rights worked, with Radulov becoming a central case. Russian hockey felt it was being bled dry of talent by the NHL, while the NHL felt they were easily the best league for any player and thought that the KHL had no right attempting to “steal players.” Radulov, caught in the middle of all of this, decided to return home despite having a year left on his ELC.
What’s a bit frustrating about all of this is that we don’t know exactly what happened, seeing as the organization has always been tight-lipped; Radulov said that he had told Poile and Trotz that he might go to the KHL unless he was given reason not to. Was this a failure by Radulov to properly communicate, or a failure by Poile to talk to a young, impressionable and homesick forward and convince him that leaving wasn’t the answer?
We can never be sure, but one thing is certain—Radulov’s absence was felt throughout the franchise’s following years. His breaking Poile’s trust sent the GM back towards low-risk selections in the draft, and to this day, the Predators have never had a real superstar among their ranks (save for Paul Kariya, in the twilight of his career). Radulov went on to win 4 KHL MVP trophies before he turned 30, along with multiple Kontinental Cups.
In his brief return to Nashville, he was second among all players in points in the postseason (as much as we malign him for the Kostitsyn bar incident, which was clearly a boneheaded move, he was still a useful player in that brief run), and he went on to sign in Montreal before ending up a still-productive player in Dallas today. What happens if he never leaves? I’m going to go deep into the territory of fantasy and conjecture (with some statistics), but that’s how these things tend to be, so bear with me as I paint a picture of sorts.
In the 2007-08 season, Radulov’s age 21-22 year, he ranked 44th among all skaters in EWAR and first among all Predators. Who was in that territory along with him? Well, 28-year-old Daniel Sedin (a likely HOFer), 21-year-old Anže Kopitar (one of the best players of the 2010s, multiple-time Cup winner and clearly a franchise-altering presence in LA), prime Niklas Kronwall, and arguably peak Shane Doan (78 points, a career high).
Of those guys I just mentioned, Radulov ranked ABOVE both Sedin and Kopitar, despite scoring significantly fewer points than either. Radulov fits the mold of today’s elite playmaker, with plus skating, passing, and stick handling to go with a strong wrist shot. It isn’t a stretch to say he would have been in the league of a Zach Parise, Joe Pavelski, or Jeff Carter type at the bare minimum—and he could have been even better than any of those guys.
The fact that 33-year-old Radulov is still easily a top-line forward by production, ability by the eye test, and analytics taking in his time on the Stars speaks to this. Given that he was capable of a 3.7 WAR season in 2018-19, a full .7 EWAR above anyone else on his team, we can believe that he would still be a 70ish-point player today with a decent supporting cast. Now, how do we determine what his prime would have looked like?
This is mostly just me guessing and fudging, but given his production this late in his career and the way his rookie season went, I’d say Radulov is most comparable to a player very dear to my heart: Claude Giroux. Based upon late career numbers, style of play, and the huge promise he showed at a young age, his peak EWAR probably falls in the 4-5.5 range, putting him squarely in elite territory (for context, the highest single-season EWAR is Pavel Datsyuk with 7.4).
Giroux’s early years were similar in value to Radulov’s, and the two are of a similar skillset (although Giroux is a center and Radulov a winger). Giroux’s peak years would likely be significantly better than Radulov’s, but a lite version of Claude freaking Giroux is still a superstar nonetheless. Looking at all of those prime years spent in the KHL, it isn’t hard to imagine Radulov tearing it up alongside the likes of prime Shea Weber, Patric Hörnqvist, Steve Sullivan, and Ryan Suter, all in front of a studly young Pekka Rinne having some great years.
With Radulov, the Predators likely aren’t picking Colin Wilson at the top of the 2008 NHL draft, but they still in all probability get Roman Josi in the second round. Adding a dynamic player like Radulov might have prevented the heartbreaking first round loss to the Blackhawks, and it absolutely helps them take the Canucks to 7 games at the minimum in 2011.
The entire complexion of the franchise changes if they win either of those series; the 2011 and 2012 teams in particular were absolutely good enough to win a Stanley Cup, but just lacked something to push them over the top. Full seasons with a star forward scoring lots of points and fostering the growth of other forwards also helps the complexion of the team in the eyes of fans and the league alike.
The bottom line is, Radulov would have made Predators hockey a whole lot more fun, even compared to the fun it already generated.
Radulov Regular Season Career Projections, If He Never Leaves (Take W/Grain of Salt)
Claude Giroux Career Stats (Regular Season)
Now, let’s say that this Twilight Zone reality happens, and one of the most maligned players in franchise history is still with the team, at age 33, as a leader and beloved figure among Preds fans. What would a line of Radulov, Forsberg and Johansen look like in that Cup run? Would he have been the guy to bring a championship to Nashville? How electric would all of that be?
Filip Forsberg’s rookie and sophomore years are the two best forward seasons by EWAR in franchise history; imagine if he had an established, truly elite veteran on the opposite wing helping him? Radulov probably leads the franchise in points, goals, and assists at this point handily, and likely holds every scoring record until Forsberg potentially breaks it. We get high-flying, Capitals/Penguins-esque hockey in Nashville instead of the slugfest games this team has always preferred.
I’m not saying all of this would happen; again, it’s conjecture at best. But there is an argument that Radulov’s absence versus presence creates a seismic shift in the past, present and future of the Predators in addition to fundamentally altering the organization and the league. Cup winners change, records are broken, the Predators maybe don’t draft Austin Watson over Evgeny Kuznetsov or Miikka Salomäki over Nikita Kucherov, and this team wins some banners worth serious celebration.
Or, at the very least, they get a fun, impactful player who changes what it means to be a Nashville Predator. It’s hard to deny the facts; Radulov’s departure represents the loss of so, so much potential for the team, fans, and organization. It’s difficult to not think, “what if?” and long for a world where Radulov and the Preds worked out. In closing, I leave you with a few absolutely nasty goals by #47 , as a reminder of what could have been.
The man had an absolute rocket and wheels, I tell ya, in addition to being...a lovable fast-food worker?
You’re welcome for that last gem. Stay safe, y’all. Go Preds.