Alexander Radulov is one cheeky monkey. His latest maneuver once again puts the NHL and KHL in an awkward dance.
Fleeing the NHL in 2008 while still under contract with the Nashville Predators, yet before the NHL and KHL reached a level of glasnost to respect each other's player contracts, Radulov parlayed his escape into lucrative KHL salaries, a KHL MVP award and a league championship. He is the young Russian league's leading all-time scorer, and he's done it all while under suspension from the NHL team he left behind -- a small-market team that really counted on his offense at the time he left.
Now he's ready to return to the Predators, but it's very much on his terms. Radulov's expected return for Nashville's playoff run is a boon to them and a threat to their Western Conference rivals, but it's not above NHL rules and it's fully within the Predators' rights to take back their suspended, under-contract player. That he does not require waivers to come back from overseas in mid-season is not the precedent of concern here.
The precedent that should worry NHL owners is how easily he skipped out on his NHL contract, came back at a moment of his choosing to "fulfill" that contract's final year, and basically played the NHL and KHL systems against each other to extract the most money possible.
Radulov will turn 26 this summer, meaning he'd still be a restricted free agent after his NHL contract expires this summer. Not coincidentally, reports indicate his return to the NHL would be short-lived, simply to get his Predators contract off the books before returning for another lucrative year in the KHL. Which would set him up for another return in a summer or two -- depending on the age for unrestricted free agency under the next NHL CBA -- to engage in an unrestricted bidding war between NHL and KHL teams.
Now, certainly extracting as much income as one can is every player's right. But the NHL is structured to enable a 30-team league -- and jobs for some 700 players to staff those 30 teams -- by capping salaries and making new players "earn" their free agency rights through time served.
Salaries in the NHL are already inflated by the money teams can extract from corporations to buy their suites (often under tax write-off scenarios) in a gate-driven league, while KHL salaries are inflated by the Russian oligarchs who subsidize the not-quite-gate-driven league. The more the two leagues' teams bid against each other for players, the more destabilized their structures could become, jeopardizing the closed circuit and creating more open international player markets like the kind that makes virtually every European soccer league a top-heavy mix of haves and have-nots.
The leagues already bid against each other for older, declining talent -- think Jaromir Jagr and Alexei Yashin in their career twilight -- with the understanding that there is more money (tax free!) to be made in the KHL but more prestige and better competition to be enjoyed in North America.
Supposedly the KHL and NHL now respect each other's player contracts. Supposedly the current understanding would not allow for another situation like Radulov (or like Jiri Hudler, who fled the Detroit Red Wings under similar circumstances). But allowing Radulov to disarm his suspension and fulfill his last contract obligation so cheaply, through a few games and a playoff run after his KHL season ended, opens up an avenue for players to work both systems, cash in on the KHL's money and divert more prime NHL talent to the Russian league.
Which is, of course, specifically what the KHL was created to do.