Radulov ruling rankles some GMs

BOCA RATON, Fla. -- On the one hand, the potential return of erstwhile Nashville Predators winger Alexander Radulov can be seen as a long-awaited righting of a great wrong.

On the other, and specifically if you happen to be a team that may be facing the Predators come playoff time, the talented player's ability to return so late in the regular season after being AWOL since the end of the 2007-08 season is a miscarriage of justice.

Either way, the league's updating of Radulov's status during Tuesday's GMs meeting in Florida stands as a potentially defining moment in terms of the balance of power in the Western Conference -- assuming the prodigal forward actually decides to return to his NHL home.

Radulov's Kontinental Hockey League team has been eliminated from the playoffs, and the NHL has ruled that Radulov can return directly to the Predators without having to pass waivers and can play in the playoffs. His return would also burn off the end of Radulov's entry-level contract, making him a restricted free agent this summer and in line for a healthy pay raise.

So all the stars appear to be aligning for the player who has been widely described as the best player not playing in the NHL to return to the NHL.

"In my gut, if there's going to be a time, it should be now," Nashville GM David Poile said Tuesday. "All the things are aligned. The playoffs [in the KHL] are over, the hurdles are cleared. He can burn off the year, get himself to free agency.

"More important than all of that, I've always felt like he was going to come back. From the day he left I always felt he would come back to the best league in the world.

"He's a guy that wants to play against the best players in the league. He always discusses the Ovechkins and Malkins in the highest order. He wants to be with them and play against them."

It's expected Radulov, the 15th overall pick in 2004, will make his decision quickly. Training camp for the Russian national team that will compete at this spring's world championships begins in a few days. The thinking is that if Radulov attends that camp he will not return to the NHL. But if he isn't going to camp, then he will return to Nashville.

Competitively, there would never be a better time for Radulov to return and prove that he's an elite player.

The Predators are a Cup contender icing perhaps the best team they have ever assembled, anchored by stud rearguards Ryan Suter and Shea Weber and a Vezina-worthy netminder in Pekka Rinne. Poile also added scoring depth at the trade deadline in the form of Andrei Kostitsyn and grit with Paul Gaustad and defenseman Hal Gill.

Would Radulov, a two-time MVP in the KHL, put them over the top?

Only time will tell of course, but the ability of the Predators to add such a potentially important piece to their playoff arsenal at such a late date in the season certainly rankled a number of GMs.

Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland, normally among the most erudite and approachable GMs, declined to comment on the league's ruling.

His Red Wings appear to be on a collision course with the Predators in the first round of the playoffs.

Other conference foes wondered about the fairness of essentially rewarding a player who walked away from an existing contract and signed another contract in another professional hockey league.

"I understand it from Nashville's perspective, that they didn't initiate this. The difficult part is from Radulov's perspective he did," said Doug Armstrong, general manager of the current Central Division leader, the St. Louis Blues.

"He gets his cake and eats it too. I understand Nashville's point of view but from Radulov's point of view, he wins on all fronts.

"Fair or unfair, I guess you just have [to] live with the ruling. As I said, Bill [Daly] and Gary [Bettman] have difficult decisions to make. They felt that this is the acceptable way. He's a suspended player, they're going to lift the suspension and allow him to play. We have to just move forward and accept it."

Although team officials were guarded in their comments to the media, multiple sources told ESPN.com that the discussion got pretty heated when Daly explained the ruling Tuesday morning.

"Oh, it's competitive, absolutely," Montreal GM Pierre Gauthier said.

"There's some competitive issues there. Why are they allowed to get a player back? If you're in the Western Conference, you bring those things up for sure. We all have our competitive juices going."

In general, players that play outside the NHL and return to the league must clear waivers.

A year ago, Detroit tried to sign Evgeni Nabokov after his KHL season went off the rails and he was released from his Russian contract, but the New York Islanders claimed him on waivers.

Also, the annual trade deadline marks the point at which players cannot be added from outside a team and be eligible to play in the playoffs. For example, Boston recently signed Marty Turco, but the netminder cannot play in the postseason.

But the Radulov case presented a different scenario, one that was more reminiscent of the Alexei Yashin dispute when Yashin refused to play for a full season with the Ottawa Senators over a contract dispute in 1999-2000. The league ruled in that case that since Yashin was under contract to the Senators, he owed the team that service regardless of how long he remained out.

The difference is that Yashin didn't play anywhere else during his walkout and he returned to the Senators at the start of the season.

Radulov is likewise under contract with the Predators and was suspended when he left to play in his homeland. The league ruled that he can return at any point to the team.

"He is a player under contract," Daly said Tuesday. "He has contractual obligations to Nashville. It would be unfair to the club that has the benefit and right to those contractual obligations not to be able to bring him back.

"It's been black and white, for us. We've consistently taken that position with every player who has gone AWOL on his contractual obligations."

Daly said the GMs shouldn't have been surprised by the league's decision, although he acknowledged he understood why some would have preferred a different outcome.

"The guys in this room are competitors," Daly said. "So, I certainly understand that they might like the result in this situation to be different. But it's the result that we've tried to preserve for our clubs from the start."

But even the deputy commissioner admitted he didn't like the optics of it.

"I don't like it," he added. "I don't like the fact that a player owes a full year under a contract, but ultimately the club didn't have to take him back [with so little time left in the season]. If they wanted to insist on the full year [of service] it is within their rights to do it."

The feeling is that Radulov, well-paid in the KHL, wouldn't have been interested in coming back with a full year on his entry-level deal, one that pays him $984,200. But being able to play for a few weeks pending the length of the Preds' playoff run, and then become a restricted free agent would be, naturally, more attractive to him and facilitate his return.

Obviously, the Predators are willing to bite that bullet if it puts behind them what has been a disappointing set of circumstances.

For instance, the KHL and the NHL agreed after the Radulov defection to honor each other's contracts. But Radulov was allowed to remain in the KHL in spite of the agreement.

"Nobody else has been through this as we have," Poile said. "The NHL and KHL have made a deal after the fact. It's like 'We're not going to take anybody else's players.' What about Radulov? 'Well, after Radulov.'"

The saga may be coming to an end now, but the question remains how Radulov's return will alter the script for the Nashville Predators and the rest of their opponents in the coming weeks.