The word “playmaker” carries certain associations. It’s the slight player whose body—like the pucks he dishes—slips through tight spots, leaving opponents to grasp at air. And there’s an altruistic element to it, teeing up other people so their goals can be celebrated. You can almost picture the bumper sticker: “Proud parents of a passer.”
With respect to the way he finds open teammates, Alexander Radulov is a quintessential setup man. And regardless of which Montreal Canadien scores when Radulov is on the ice, nobody is more excited than the rambunctious Russian. But when it comes to those other connotations, Radulov doesn’t fit the stereotype. On the first shift of a Saturday night showdown with the Toronto Maple Leafs, he takes a pass on the backhand at the offensive half-wall. When Nazem Kadri moves to mark him, Radulov takes his bottom hand off his stick and drives his arm into the Maple Leaf’s chest, knocking him flat. Radulov then slides the puck back to Shea Weber and cuts for the net. When the defenceman’s shot leads to a loose puck at the side of the goal, Radulov reaches out to collect it, circles behind the goal-line and feathers a precise pass for Max Pacioretty to convert just a few feet from the lip of the crease. As Radulov rocks the Habs celebration circle, Kadri complains to the ref. He just may have a case. The bottom line, though, is that Radulov has once again combined force and finesse to create a goal the way few in the league can.
Any number of teams could be benefiting from that unique fusion this season, but Montreal placed the strongest bet on a free agent hounded by question marks and loaded with potential. When Radulov—coming off four campaigns in the KHL—signed a one-year, $5.75-million deal with the Canadiens on July 1, the kindest words tossed around on radio and the web were “value” and “upside.” Half a year later, the right winger has gone from calculated risk to core piece, an essential team member whose exuberance is somewhat reminiscent of a guy traded away by the organization in its other summer-defining move.
But while P.K. Subban’s bubbling passion is thought to have caused chafing within the dressing room at times, there’s no such issue with Radulov’s endless enthusiasm. The latter has been lauded by coaches and teammates alike this season, and the only questions surrounding the 30-year-old now pertain to whether Montreal can get his name on a contract extension before he becomes a UFA again this July, and whether—on a hypothetical and frightening note—this injury-ravaged club would be on the playoff bubble instead of sitting comfortably in the Atlantic Division penthouse without Radulov’s enormous contributions.
One day before he helped kick-start a 5-3 win over the Leafs, Radulov was on the ice practising in Toronto. Even casually observing his tendencies, one wonders how long he was ever able to sit still for a teacher. When the Habs circle around a player leading stretches, Radulov is a half-hearted participant, flexing a leg here and there but also firing pucks from his knees toward an empty net. Then, when a long whistle prompts the rest of the Canadiens to start whirling counter-clockwise around the blue lines, Radulov has to squeeze in a couple more shots at the net. The last one nearly plunks assistant coach J.J. Daigneault as he fishes out pucks, prompting a “WTF?!” glare from the former Montreal defenceman. Radulov seems to plead innocent, then turns and gets swallowed by the swirl of his speeding teammates. His gap-toothed smile and the coarse-looking black scruff that nearly kisses his collarbone give him the appearance of a happy-go-lucky gravedigger.
“How you see him on the ice is sort of how he is off the ice as well,” says Habs centre Torrey Mitchell of Radulov’s playful tendencies. “He’s been a great presence and a good leader for us.”
That was also the case in Russia. Leafs defenceman Nikita Zaitsev spent the past three seasons skating beside Radulov with CSKA Moscow, which lost the league final in seven games last spring. “He was the leader,” says Zaitsev. “He was a good guy in the locker room. He gave a lot of energy to the team.”
Dave King picked up on those currents. The long-time coach was behind the Yaroslavl Lokomotiv bench during seasons when megastars like Ilya Kovalchuk, Artemi Panarin and Sergei Mozyakin were tearing up the “K.” While they kept King and his staff glued to their video monitors, they weren’t the most difficult skaters to game plan for. “Radulov was better than those players,” King says. “I was so impressed with his work. When he’s got the puck, he’s at high speed on the rush; down low, lots of change of direction. He’s so deceptive—[is] he going to shoot or is he going to pass? He can beat you one-on-one with his skill. And then, beyond his skill, he’s so tenacious.
“He was the most dominating player in the KHL.”
When King’s North American hockey contacts periodically asked about Radulov over the years, that was the message they got. The counter, though, was that during his first NHL stint with the Nashville Predators, Radulov caused his own club nothing but headaches. In the summer of 2008, after two years with the Preds, Radulov skipped out on the final year of his contract to join Ufa Salavat Yulaev for the KHL’s inaugural season. When he returned to the U.S. four years later for the 2012 stretch run and playoffs, he was benched for a second-round series game against the Phoenix Coyotes for breaking curfew. That all but cemented a return to the KHL with CSKA.
With a little understanding, one can see why Radulov—whose earning power was capped on this continent by his NHL entry-level deal—might jump at the chance to play in his home country for heaps of tax-free money. But partying in the playoffs, especially when you’re already on probation, is tough to defend. And in a world where NHL clubs are limited to 50 precious contracts and constrained by the salary cap, red flags rippled in the minds of many hockey people when Radulov’s name came up.
In recent times, though, people who know Radulov say growth has been evident. “He’s like [all] people, he’s getting smarter every year,” says Zaitsev. “He’s got family, got a kid right now, so he’s changed.”
Publicly, Radulov has said becoming a father triggered some transformations. And while Mitchell thinks his buddy is likely playing with some degree of a shoulder chip, the 2006 Memorial Cup champion and tournament MVP has shied away from the notion that he’s here to shove anything down throats that previously voiced doubts about him. “You have to prove [yourself] every day,” Radulov says. “It’s not just about [changing minds].”
Winning over a skeptical city was certainly no slam dunk when Montreal signed Radulov. One year prior, the Canadiens had taken a flyer on another Russian, Alexander Semin, and the experiment went so poorly that the 15 games Semin actually played for the Canadiens will certainly go down as his final NHL showings. There were easy—perhaps lazy—parallels to draw between Semin and Radulov, and while the apples-to-oranges of it all is clear as day now, there was no shortage of scoffing six months ago. That’s why, when Montreal’s captain expressed his admiration for Radulov’s talent to the media at the time, it was met with ridicule.
“I got laughed at, out loud,” Pacioretty says. “I said he’s probably one of the most skilled players on the planet, and that’s definitely the truth. Some of the skills he has, I’ve never seen anyone have.”
While those abilities have been on display from the start in La Belle Province, Radulov’s work in the days preceding the victory in Toronto really punctuated how vital his contributions are to the Habs. Three nights earlier, in Dallas, Montreal was playing the penultimate contest in a seven-outing road trip. The team was already without prized defenceman Andrei Markov and No. 1 centre Alex Galchenyuk when scoring wingers Brendan Gallagher and Paul Byron were both knocked out by injuries. With his team down a goal early in the third, Radulov jumped on a loose puck just inside the Stars blue line, barrelled between two defenders and roofed a backhand goal under the bar to tie a game Montreal eventually won in overtime.
Twenty-four hours before that, Radulov was at his playmaking best while tormenting his old club in Nashville. A 1-0 Predators’ advantage was erased less than five minutes into the final frame when Radulov sent a feed between three mustard-coloured sweaters to the high slot, where Weber caught the puck and fired it into the goal. Then, with the clock showing fewer than 40 seconds in extra time, Radulov picked up a pass behind the Preds’ net, pivoted and patiently waited for Pacioretty to slide into a spot where he could slam home the game-winner.
All of the above were game-altering plays at critical moments that helped an ailing team continue to collect points and pad its lead in the division. “I think everyone—I don’t want to say forgot about him—but forgot how good he was,” says Mitchell.
With almost nightly reminders, overlooking some of Radulov’s defensive deficiencies isn’t too difficult. King says Radulov can be guilty of puck-watching in his own zone, especially when he doesn’t see an immediate role for himself. The other thing that gets him into trouble is also in some ways endearing, because it gets at the essence of who he is as a hockey player. “He almost overworks defensively,” says King. “He approaches people to check with too much speed. He’s just so gung-ho to get the puck back.”
And thanks to Radulov’s personal evolution, what he can do once he gets it is now an unconditional treat for those around him to savour.
Big Read: The evolution of Eugenie Bouchard
Once the darling of the tennis world, Eugenie Bouchard is now out to prove she didn’t peak too soon. But she also has a message for her critics: She's done caring what they think.