It is not entirely clear what happened. The Predators described it as a violation of team rules. Radulov implied, slightly more specifically, that it was a violation of curfew- “Like I didn’t come back that late as we say” is the exact quote, and worth remembering for those of you who still believe the Russian-English language barrier isn’t significant. Reports suggested that the two players had been seen out at 4 am in Scottsdale on the night preceding game 2. Other rumors of nonspecific origin have referred to drinking. Whatever the exact cause, yesterday morning, the Nashville Predators announced that they were suspending forwards Andrei Kostitsyn and Alexander Radulov for the third game of the Western Conference semifinals.
The responses across the hockey world to these suspensions have been mostly positive. The Preds organization has been applauded for their consistent application of rules and their commitment to team culture. Even those who acknowledge that there is troubling trade-off inherent in suspending two of your more effective offensive players for a playoff game, such as our glorious leader Bourne (and if you haven’t read that article yet, do so immediately), still ultimately feel that the suspension was necessary for the greater good of a peaceable locker room.
Now, one must of course respect that this is the way things are done in hockey and that this is the way the Predators prefer to run their organization. Nashville is a smart franchise. They’ve been able to get good results out of a budget roster for many a year, and their positively eternal commitment to a single coach and a single GM does suggest that they have a set of long-established team values to look after. So I fully admit that there may well be factors here that have not been made public which, if released, would make this a more obviously right decision.
Unfortunately, unless such information is confirmed, it isn’t real, and justifications that rely on unsubstantiated gossip and imaginative details for their strength are not valid justifications. Based only on what we know, without making up any additional details or ascribing any personal motivations, there are some legitimate questions that should be asked about the rationale for these suspensions and the compromise it represents. They need to be asked because this decision represents an organization making a trade-off between a demonstrable on-ice value (the scoring potential of Kostitsyn and Radulov) and a more nebulous off-ice moral principle (players must all obey the same curfew). Coaches and managers make these kinds of trade-offs all the time in hockey- think Laviolette’s Dry Island or Burke’s Pre-Deadline Deadline- and in every case they should be questioned. Every time a team decides to put ideology ahead of pragmatism, every time they put something ahead of winning, we should ask why. Just because it’s customary doesn’t make it smart, and if it isn’t smart, maybe it needs to go.
So here are seven questions for the Predators organization:
- How important are these policies? When Poile described the suspensions, he talked a lot about ‘doing the right thing’, which makes it sound as though Kostitsyn and Radulov were out beating nuns rather than just allegedly drinking. But whatever policy the team has should be rooted in what makes good player performance, not an abstract sense of ethics. Yes, in general, going to bed early is a good thing for player performance, and yes, Radulov did play poorly in the subsequent game, but Kostitsyn didn’t play significantly worse than any number of other full-night-sleep-getting Predators players. Whatever Kostitsyn did out that night, he didn’t compromise himself so badly that he let down his team. It’s not entirely clear if, had they not been seen out at 4 am, anyone would have noticed anything was wrong. What is the point of punishing people for breaking rules that have no impact on their performance, other than pure symbolism?
- How consistent are these policies? Again, Poile said he’d never seen anything like this before in his career. Really, David Poile? You’ve never seen players stay out past curfew allegedly drinking? This is a totally foreign concept to you? I don’t buy it. Whatever team policies may be, these kind of public suspensions are very rare in the NHL. To my knowledge, the Preds have never used one before. But I am willing to bet cash money that lots of players get themselves up to all sorts of after-hours nonsense in the course of the season and pretty much all of it gets gently swept under the rug, handled internally through peer pressure from teammates and coach’s punishments. Teams almost never choose to make a public stink about a broken curfew, but does anyone really believe that broken curfews never happen? This suspension get heralded as an example of ‘consistent discipline’, but what exactly is it consistent with? Not the past, certainly- nothing like this has happened before. It’s not as if the Preds have been suspending third-liners and fourth defensemen all season long. This gesture doesn’t look, sound, or smell in any way like ‘consistency’. It’s more like message-sending.
- What is this suspension supposed to accomplish? It hurts the team on the ice, so if it’s still worth it, then it must make the team better in some other way. How? By teaching Radulov and Kostitsyn a lesson? They’re both UFAs next year and it’s uncertain whether Radulov will even stay in North America. Neither of these players need the Predators organization to do anything for them, which makes it unlikely that they’re going to be whipped into shape like timid children. If it’s supposed to send a message to the rest of the team, why bother? The rest of the team is already playing by the rules, they didn’t do anything wrong. Why punish them by making it harder to win?
- Isn’t it the responsibility of the Predators organization to build the kind of team culture they want from the beginning, over the course of the regular season? I believe that team culture is important. I believe that character and personality and getting everyone on board with a unified vision can make a huge difference in the quality of a dressing room, and that can certainly have a positive impact on the ice. But team culture is something that takes careful building, starting with the kind of players you acquire and continuing through a process of education and bonding. It takes months, maybe years to do it right, and the time for that building is before the playoffs. It’s not created by abrupt punitive gestures in game 3 of the conference semis, and the maintenance of it shouldn’t be heavily dependent on how harshly you handle a single curfew violation. If the camaraderie and good behavior of their room is so fragile that seeing Kostitsyn and Radulov not get suspended will undermine everything the organization has built thus far and send everyone from Weber to Yip running straight for the clubs to spend all their nights snorting coke off hookers, then it wasn’t a much of a team culture to begin with.
- What did they expect when they brought Radulov back from the KHL? This is not, mind you, a Russian thing. It’s a Radulov thing, and I don’t think culture plays any role in it except insofar as it made going to the KHL a more cozy option than it might have been for a discontented American or Swede. If you’ve paid any attention whatsoever to the career of Alexander Radulov so far, you might have observed that this is a man with a long and proud history of telling everyone from the Preds to the NHL to the IIHF where exactly they can stick their precious rules. This is not Mr. Yessir Whateveryousaysir. You would think the Predators themselves might have noticed this quality when he, uh, ditched their team to go play in another league for four years. Where, incidentally, he once hit his own coach with a stick. Radulov, being a rich and complex human being, is many things- ‘gifted at hockey’ is one of them; ‘easily disciplined’ is not. And yet the Preds happily lifted the suspension they themselves had levied against him (broke their own team policy, mind you) to get him back just in time for the playoffs. If a unified team culture is such an essential and fundamental value for you that you’re willing to suspend players in the playoffs over it, I would suggest that perhaps bringing back a man who’s most famous interaction with your franchise was that one time he told it to go f*#k itself is not the ideal course of action.
- What is team culture for, if not winning? When people talk about player discipline, they often reference child-rearing and animal training- if you don’t punish consistently, how will they ever learn?!?! Even if one concedes that the analogy holds when it comes to NHL-level discipline- deterring head shots and high sticks in the offices of the good squire Shanahan- it breaks down on the team level. The point of child-rearing is to raise morally-upstanding children. The point of animal-training is to create well-behaved pets. But the point of a hockey team is not to create morally-upstanding, well-behaved hockey players. It’s not to create an awesome dressing room culture. It’s not to get 23 men to all go to bed at the same time. It’s to win hockey games and, if you’re talented enough and lucky enough to be playing in the NHL, to win the Cup. Now, team culture may help you win the Cup, but when the goal of creating the right team culture comes into direct conflict with the goal of winning the Cup- for example, when team culture asks that you suspend two of your best offensive producers when down 2-0 in a playoff series- you have to ask yourself what exactly you’re in this for. If you’re not going to cultivate your team-culture garden zealously, if you’re going to bring in deadline rentals and dudes who’ve been playing on the other side of the world lo these many years, you’re going to get people who go off the rails from time to time. How many Cup runs is it worth compromising to make guys who might not even be yours next year feel bad?
- Is this just a public relations gesture? Look at where the Predators are: they’re down 2-0 in a series. Their $49 millon goalie, who carried them through a first round where they were outshot, outchanced, and outplayed in pretty much every area, just put up a .872 save percentage in the last game. This team is in a tough spot. The storylines, especially if the next two games go ill, would not have been kind to a management team that heavily invested in a run this year. Making a public spectacle of suspending Radulov and Kostitsyn, however, redefines all the narratives. The Preds management is already being commended for their courageous stand against late-night drinking. If the team wins game 3, the story will be that they all rallied behind the moral courage of Trotz and Poile. If the team loses game 3, the story will be that Kostitsyn and Radulov screwed their teammates by creating a distraction and getting themselves suspended. Either way, the pressure is now entirely off management and it will be for the foreseeable future. Remember: the only reason we even know this curfew-breaking happened is because the Predators decided to make a show of it. Rule number #57 of the NHL: No GM ever went wrong scapegoating enigmatic Russians to the media.
Getting to the second round of the playoffs is no easy thing. Getting through it is even harder. The Predators cannot count on being able to do even the first next season, much less the second, no matter what their team culture is like. This is not a moment to be taken for granted, as if the franchise could just summon it up at will through sheer force of moral virtue. It’s a rare opportunity made even more precious by how heavily the Preds went all-in this year. They invested big in Rinne, they’re hoping to invest bigger still in Weber and Suter, they traded for Gill and Gaustad and Kostitsyn, they made the compromises necessary to bring Radulov back. They geared up for a run, but now their gears are grinding and it’s hardly only Radulov and Kostitsyn who are the trouble. In fact, these two problem children have been their best points-producers in the playoffs so far. They’re not getting offense from the rest of their dutiful roster, and against the Coyotes, they haven’t been getting goaltending either. Suspending these players has a very real chance of losing them this game and putting them down 3-0 in the series. Only maybe three teams in the history of the NHL playoffs have come back from a 3-0 deficit. This is not some tiny dent in the Preds hopes of Cup-hoisting; it’s a rather large hole. It shouldn’t be made lightly.
We like to believe that teams that win the Cup do so because they’re in some way right, that they found some magical chemistry or mystical unity that catapulted them to a preordained victory, that they ‘came together’ in a way the losing teams did not. That’s not how it goes. There is no teleology to winning the postseason. There is no destiny. It’s a messy business, full of near-misses and weird bounces and might-have-beens. As we’ve were all too often reminded in the first round, it’s also full of misbehavior, of lost tempers and broken composure, dirtiness and disrespect and dishonesty. This time of year, a lot of rules get broken. A lot of games are scraped through rather than decisively taken. A lot of series are won on wings and prayers. For every rift in the room that gets publicized as an excuse by a losing team, there are doubtless plenty of conflicts and screw-ups behind the closed doors of triumphant squads. But, of course, nothing erases intra-team tensions more quickly and thoroughly an ending which features champagne and engraving.
Ultimately, a lot of the symbolic gestures that coaches and managers demand from their players are just that: symbols. They’re token behaviors that look good and feel right, but they’re not necessities, and sometimes, maybe, they should be scrapped. Because, after all, why is it only players who are supposed to show that they will do whatever it takes to win? What about coaches? What about GMs? Are they willing to do whatever it takes? What if what it takes is the ability to compromise? What if what it takes is putting your best players on the ice even when they’re not quite toeing the line? What if what it takes is leaving aside some symbols for two games so that, should that moment come when you’re down a goal with five minutes left and an O-zone faceoff, you have the players in your organization most likely to score all available on your bench?
Is winning so cheap that it’s worth sacrificing over a strongly-held moral stance on the issue of bedtimes?
For many NHL teams, the answer might indeed be “Yes, absolutely.” But the question still needs to be asked.