Nashville Predators forward Alexander Radulov, of Russia, answers questions at a news conference on Wednesday, March 21, 2012, in Nashville, Tenn. Radulov has rejoined the Predators, the NHL hockey team that drafted him in 2004, after leaving in 2008 to play in Russia . (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Alexander Radulov has rejoined the Nashville Predators after four years playing in Russia in the KHL. How quickly he fits back in remains to be seen.
"Nine games is enough—hopefully," Predators coach Barry Trotz said after Radulov's first practice Wednesday morning.
For a situation frozen since Radulov bolted back home to Russia to be the face of the Kontinental Hockey League, it's been a whirlwind over the past two days that the Predators hope propel them to their first Stanley Cup.
Radulov arrived in Nashville on Tuesday night and was picked up at the airport by general manager David Poile. The Predators lifted their suspension of the forward Wednesday morning, then gave him his old No. 47 at a news conference before he hit the ice on a team that still has six teammates from his first stint in Nashville.
He said "it's about time" he returned to the NHL.
The Predators held that number for Radulov hoping the 15th pick overall in the 2004 draft would return eventually.
"It certainly wasn't fun in 2008 when he left. That wasn't a good thing," Poile said. "Maybe now this is a real good thing. Maybe now we get back a more finished product, a more mature person and player and maybe this works out really good for us. That's certainly what I'm hoping."
The Predators lost in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs last season, and Poile brought in defenceman Hal Gill and forwards Andrei Kostitsyn and Paul Gaustad at the trade deadline trying to plug holes. Nashville ranks fourth in the Western Conference with nine games left, trailing St. Louis by eight points both in the Central Division and for first in the West.
"He's a superstar," defenceman Ryan Suter said of Radulov. "He plays hard and has got a great shot, and it's fun to be out there with him."
Radulov left in July 2008 after signing a three-year contract with the KHL's Salavat Yulayev Ufa despite having a year left on his entry contract with the Predators. Nashville suspended him indefinitely in September 2008, though Poile stayed in touch trying to convince the right-winger to return.
"We knew you'd be back," Poile said as he presented Radulov the team's redesigned sweater with his old number.
Trotz said his team leaders were excited at having Radulov back, and the coach already has noticed a different player.
"He's more mature in everything in terms of he's bigger. He's smarter. He's more hockey savvy with more poise," Trotz said. "So yeah he's an improved version which is great because he was a good version when he was here."
Captain Shea Weber had stayed in touch with Radulov by phone and in person at world hockey championships and other events.
"Obviously, we were hoping he'd eventually come back, and now he's here and it's exciting," Weber said.
Radulov is the explosive, creative scorer that the Predators always have wanted. He is a two-time MVP of the KHL, and the league's all-time scorer with 254 goals. His team won a championship, and he also has played for Russia in the World Championships and the 2010 Olympics. Radulov scored 63 points in 50 games this season.
"As I've said, he's the best player not playing currently in the National Hockey League," Poile said.
But, Radulov's team lost early this post-season, and his contract expired. The man who kept his home in Nashville, though he sold his car last year, kept close tabs on the Predators with his parents even attending games over the past four years. He decided the time finally had come to return.
"I'm happy to come back and be here because I mean I play here two years, and I remember all the moments," Radulov said. It's good to be back here you know. I feel good and just looking forward to help the team be better. I know it is a good young team. I know some guys from it. We're good friends of mine.
"I'll do whatever it takes to help the team be better."
Some of those friends include Weber and Suter. Radulov also played with defenceman Kevin Klein and forwards David Legwand, Martin Erat and Jordin Tootoo. Trotz put Radulov on a line with Legwand and Patric Hornqvist on Wednesday.
Other NHL teams are not happy Radulov did not have to go through waivers on his return. But Radulov remained under contract with Nashville, and the Predators lifted their suspension of Radulov on Wednesday morning.
Radulov will satisfy a full season of his Nashville contract and become a restricted free agent. Both Poile and Radulov said they are focused only on finishing the regular season and the playoffs, though Poile hopes Radulov has a longer stay in Nashville.
The president of the KHL has said Radulov will be back in that league next season. Radulov said he did not say anything or promise anything to anybody.
"I just left and like I said I got the opportunity to move from Russia this summer, so that's about it and I'll decide then ..," Radulov said.
Poile said there's lots of misinformation out there. The general manager said Radulov told him he does not have a contract or promise to go back to the KHL.
"It's our goal to have him stay here longer. Again, no pressure right now. Just play, and we'll talk and see what makes sense going forward for both of us," Poile said.
Radulov may play Thursday night at Pittsburgh. Radulov hasn't skated in a couple weeks because he said there was no ice to work on in Russia, and he also was busy wrapping up paperwork needed for him to leave. Trotz said he will wait until after the Thursday morning skate to see how Radulov deals with jet lag from crossing about eight time zones.