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Radulov’s in Russia, but his coach may belong in Siberia



The National Hockey League season starts this week, which means it's only a matter of time before the local fan base cries out for more offense from the Nashville Predators.

Folks will talk about the lack of action in free agency. They will wonder how hard general manager David Poile really pushed for a deal to acquire Phil Kessel, who ultimately was traded from Boston to Toronto during training camp.

And of course, they'll remember Alexander Radulov.

To recap, Radulov still was under contract with the Predators in the summer of 2008 when he signed a deal to play in his native Russia in the inaugural season of the Continental Hockey League (KHL). Legal maneuvers by the team and the NHL to hold the player to the terms of his NHL deal were unsuccessful, and Radulov played the 2008-09 season over there. The issue was revisited this spring with no change.

Radulov remains in Russia—and as a result, so does Nashville's best option for a long-term offensive solution.

Franchise officials will talk about transfer agreements, binding arbitration and the like. Then they'll throw up their arms and say there's nothing they can do.

The fact is, it's not what they should do, it's what they should have done. More to the point, it's what coach Barry Trotz should have done.

Back in 2007-08 (Radulov's one full NHL season) when he scored 26 goals and added 32 assists in 81 games, the young Russian forward touched off a league-wide debate with his exuberant goal celebrations.

Initially Trotz publicly supported Radulov because he said he believed the actions were "genuine." Eventually, though, the coach changed his approach, sided with some of the team's veteran players and worked to stifle the kid's antics. The talk was that Radulov needed to be more respectful and professional.

Trotz should have told his older players just to get the puck to Radulov and then simply to get out of the way every time the goal light came on.

Let's face it, Radulov did not turn his back on the Predators because he wanted to face better competition or because he wanted to make more money.

The best players in the world play in the NHL, and ones who can score the way Radulov can (particularly at such a young age) are prized commodities. They are the ones who drive the market, even these days when the league operates with a salary cap and an uncertain financial future.

Had Radulov stayed with the Predators through last season, he would have been a restricted free agent this past summer. One way or another, he was going to cash in. Either the Predators would have locked him up with a long-term deal, or another team would have signed him to an offer sheet that would have guaranteed him a hefty salary. And Nashville still would have had the right to match the contract.

Instead, he went home to Russia because he felt like an outsider in his own locker room. His teammates did not support him. His coach did not support him.

There's no such thing as perfect harmony in a pro sports locker room. There are too many egos at work.

So it's the coach's job to make sure everyone is at least united in a common pursuit, not to help 22 guys remain united in opposition of one.

Yes, Radulov was different. He was a difference-maker—the kind of player who does not come along too often, particularly where the Predators found him (the 15th overall pick in the 2004 draft).

Pure scorers in the NHL are like quarterbacks in the NFL or left-handed power pitchers in Major League Baseball—they often have certain eccentricities that require understanding and adaptation from those around them.

Certainly it didn't help that at the same time, another young Russian forward, Alexander Ovechkin, had just established himself as the sport's top offensive player. Ovechkin also grew into one of the league's most marketable and beloved stars because of his "personality," which includes emotional goal celebrations.

The truth is that Trotz has not shown a knack for coaching the most gifted of players. Arguably his worst performance as Predators' coach came in 2006-07—when the franchise had more overall and top-end talent than at any time, yet managed just one playoff victory.

Historically, he has gotten the most out of teams with the lowest expectations. That makes him the right guy for right now, because few around North America think too much of this year's lineup.

Still, he's bound to reach a point this winter when he wonders what his team might be like if it had Radulov. And he'll have to think about what he could have—should have—done differently.

Walk on

On to our latest athlete of the week, Herschel Walker. When it comes to the inability to walk away from sports, Brett Favre has nothing on Walker, whose newest pursuit is mixed martial arts. He's signed with the Strikeforce promotion and is training in California.

It apparently was not enough for Walker to win a Heisman Trophy at Georgia and then enjoy a long pro career as one of the top running backs in the USFL and, later, the NFL. He then tried his hand at bobsledding and made the 1992 U.S. Olympic team. Not too shabby.

Now 47, he has decided to take up another sport—a challenging one at that. Good luck, Herschel.


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