MONTREAL — This won’t be a red carpet affair.
Alexander Radulov was a beloved Montreal Canadien but he wasn’t a lifer, and many of the team’s fans feel he played them — and general manager Marc Bergevin — for fools when he walked out the door after just one year in their uniform and signed a five-year, $31.25-million pact with the Dallas Stars.
At least some of those people will be in attendance for his return to the Bell Centre Tuesday and they likely won’t be among those who rise from their seats with every scintillating rush he takes.
Radulov knows that’ll be the case, but he’s at peace with it.
“I can’t control that, it’s as simple as that,” he said on Tuesday morning. “I love them all, that’s the bottom line. That’s why I play hockey. For the fans and the people who show up to the game … just make sure they’re happy. That’s it.”
He did all that and more in his brief stint as a Canadien and that’s what made his departure in July so tough to swallow for some of the team’s fans.
The thing is, their contempt, if directed at him, is misguided.
It was Bergevin who took a hard line in negotiations with Radulov, stating all along that the door was open for him to re-sign with the Canadiens but only on their terms. The GM had no leverage after Radulov had proven himself virtually indispensable, but he didn’t treat it that way and lost him.
The 31-year-old Russian had put up 54 points in the regular season and seven more in a six-game playoff loss to the New York Rangers that saw the Canadiens only manage to score a total of 11 goals. He had assumed a leadership role from Day 1, exhibiting a work ethic that wowed his teammates, coach Michel Therrien and Therrien’s successor Claude Julien. He had brought a level of excitement to the games not seen since Alex Kovalev put up 84 points with the Canadiens in 2007-08. And he was going to take the best offer available to him.
It was in November of this season, prior to a 3-1 win for the Stars over the Canadiens in Dallas, that Radulov said Bergevin had offered him three-, four- and five-year deals last January.
“But at that time I didn’t want to go and sign it,” he had said. “I had only had 35 games in the season. I wanted to take a chance and see. It was the middle of the season. I was thinking maybe I’ll feel better as the season goes on. Why would I force it if I could just play the whole season and then take my time and then we’ll see what’s going to be?”
It’s the type of question you’d only consider if you put yourself in his shoes.
But, as is often the case when it comes to free agents, the fans want to believe a player’s love for their city would have them stay in place for an offer that’s anywhere near market value.
Bergevin came close — he said he was even willing to match what Dallas offered — but he wasn’t willing to take a step further and he wasn’t under any illusions about his prospects of bringing Radulov back.
“If you want loyalty, buy a dog,” Bergevin said on July 2.
What seemed obvious back then — and what appears abundantly clear now — is that Bergevin should’ve reached deeper into the Canadiens’ coffers to keep Radulov in the fold. He had more than enough cap space to do it and plenty of justification, too.
That Radulov made it to market surprised a lot of his former Canadiens teammates, and they weren’t the only ones caught off guard.
“Probably more of an extreme word than ‘surprised,’” said new teammate Tyler Seguin when he was asked about the Canadiens not doing more to bring Radulov back. “I knew he was a good playmaker, he had a good year in Montreal, but his character, his leadership, his work ethic … I mean, he’s such a contagious guy. For us to get him, it’s been season-changing, and I definitely love playing with him.”
It’s been a match made in heaven, with Radulov already hitting a career high in points with 60 and Seguin leading the Stars with 65.
Jamie Benn has been a beneficiary, too, scoring 23 goals and adding 37 assists.
This success was predictable in Stars coach Ken Hitchcock’s eyes.
“We felt when we signed him that he had an infectious attitude that we needed on our team,” he said. “He’s very much a North American player. He hunts the puck, he’s hard on the forecheck, he’s hard on the boards, he pays the price and he’s really resilient. We just felt as a team that for us to start taking proper steps we needed that element in our lineup every day so he could show our younger players how to play, he could show some of the guys that were just emerging as players the right way to play and act, and he’s been more than advertised that way. He’s really helped us elevate our deep game and I think he’s very much a throwback, that hockey consumes him.
“He knows everything going on in the league, he knows everything going on other teams, he knows the opposition and knows who he’s going to play against and it really consumes him and like I said he’s a throwback to the way it was before.”
Those are the types of players you keep at all costs. You give them an extra year on a contract and pay them a few more million knowing that you probably won’t be happy for the entire term of the deal.
It’s not Radulov’s fault that didn’t happen, and fans attending Tuesday’s game should know that.
“I just want to play a good game and put on a good show for the fans,” said Radulov. “That’s what they pay money for.”
It’s what the fans have been missing on too many nights at the Bell Centre during this trying Canadiens season.