Earlier today Barry Trotz revealed that the Nashville Predators will be (healthy) scratching Alexander Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn for Game 4 of their Western Conference semi-final series versus Phoenix. Their suspension is over, but they won last game, so they’re going to stick with the same roster.

This is incredibly stupid.

Yesterday I wrote about what it’s like to play without your best players. You ramp everything up, heighten your mental focus, and work your bag off to do enough to win. We see teams do this fairly regularly.

But there’s a reason they don’t leave their best players out every night. They’re their best players. In this case, two time KHL MVP and the Preds current leading playoff scorer Alex Radulov would have to fall somewhere in the “best forwards on the Preds” conversation. Andrei Kostitsyn is a top six guy for a reason too.

I feel like I’m explaining the world’s most obvious thing here, but it must not be, since the guy who actually has to make the decision doesn’t agree.

Take the New Jersey Devils: they were without Ilya Kovalchuk in Game 2 of their series with the Flyers, and playing in Philly. They took it to the Flyers and won, and Devils’ coach Peter DeBoer was very happy with the way his team played. So, does that mean they’re better without him? Of course it doesn’t. He’s one of their best players.

So, when Kovalchuk was available for Game 3, they put him in the lineup, and you may recall how that went. He threw the team on the herniated disc in his back, scored, assisted on two goals (including the game winner in OT), was plus two, took two shots, had a hit, grabbed two takeaways and played over 22 minutes of the game. He’s really good at hockey.

The other issue at risk here is the psyche of two players you need in the right frame of mind.

Those guys know they messed up, and they got suspended for it in a huge game. They did their time. After that, they may have played some of their best hockey. They would know all eyes are going to be on them in Game 4. They know that they need to show up ready to go, with something to prove. And now…now you put them in a position where they may end up thinking, “Well eff you too, then.” Players do pout, at all levels – ask any coach out there.

Why risk it? And why risk it with Radulov, who’s a restricted free agent this summer? Maybe they don’t want him back? Maybe what him and Kostitsyn did was worse than they’ve let on? I just can’t figure it other than it being the “lucky tie” phenomenon in roster form.

The Predators lost Games 1 and 2 with them in the lineup. They won Game 3 with them out of it. I get that. But three games is an incredibly small sample size. If you want to go back through the regular season schedule, I’m sure you can find games they won with them in the lineup, and games they lost with them out of it. But they kept dressing them both when they could because it gave them the best chance to win.

It’s not unlikely that Nashville beats Phoenix tonight – they are the better team, as we saw during the regular season (104 points to 97, plus the whole eyeball test thing). But it won’t make the decision to coach on superstition right. I know it’s the playoffs, but the routines should only go so far.

Comments (20)

  1. If the rest of the team also thinks this is the wrong decision, could that make it that much harder for them to elevate their game as well? It could double backfire…

  2. I agreed with you seniõr Bourne. I think back at what Trotz said a couple days ago about how he would have scratched them for Game 2 , had he known what happen. Perhaps he gives them one more game because they shoulnd’t have played in Game 2..

  3. I’d sit them. If Rad cared about the NHL he wouldn’t have left. Tootoo over him any day.

  4. Completely agree with you Bourne. This is madness – because you know if they lose they’re going to turn to Radulov and Kostitsyn to try to save their bacon in game 5.

    They’ll have to jump in cold, try to do too much – and ultimately fail – leading to more absurd narrative from the media about Russians and work ethic. Its ridiculous.

    Unless there is something worse than breaking a curfew going on here – I have no idea what point it proves by prolonging punishment.

  5. Has to be coming from “the room”. We really have no visibility to how pissed off the other players were at these jokers. For all we know, there was some kind of player revolt about it – we really don’t know who turned them in.

    It could well be that they are persona non-grata with the team.

  6. To me sitting them again was a no-brainer but maybe that’s just because I’m used to a coach (Q) who sticks with a winning line-up. For Q the core guys always make the line up (even if they stink) but guys who aren’t part of the core get scratched, shuffled and stapled to the bench regularly. Rads & AK, despite being the best offensive players, aren’t part of the core, in fact, this Nashville team was one of the best teams in the league *before* those two guys joined the team. Not saying it’s necessarily the right way to coach (in fact, sometimes I’m dead certain it’s wrong) but just that it’s not that unusual.

    Secondly, you yourself pointed out how disrespectful to the team their curfew violation was. Isn’t it possible that the rest of the team prefers it this way? Even just beyond winning this series or these playoffs, if there is any dissension (especially from guys like Weber & Suter that they desperately hope to retain) do you gamble on souring the locker room?

  7. What’s being overlooked is that they played poorly the first two games. Game three they got back to their game and want to continue that, it’s a risky decision, but it makes sense. That said, limiting their ice time would be a better compromise than straight up scratching them.

    • Superb rebuttal Mr. Nick.
      At the end of the hallway leading to the Hockey Tonk ice surface the last thing the Predators see before taking the ice are the words NO EXCUSES. The bold simplicity of these two words drives home a clear message ..your either in all the way or your out…NO EXCUSES. Because it’s the Cup there’s no time to tarry in purging from within those whose will is faltering . He who dares wins…

  8. Mr. Bourne, I am a fan of your columns and I value your opinion as a hockey journalist. You call it how it is, you speak the game from experience, and you rarely – if ever – say something that is off-base or inherently incorrect. But this analysis is one of the most puzzling I have ever read.

    I won a bet with a friend here after game 3 when I said, without question, that Radulov and Kostitsyn would not be playing game 4 under any circumstances. I was met with harsh criticism and resistance by many hockey-minds who, like you, shared the belief that Radulov was their best player and HAD to play game 4 if Nashville wanted to win.

    I will explain my rationale by addressing a few of thing points you made in your post above:

    The Nashville Predators aren’t going into game 4 without their best players. Shea Weber, Pekka Rinne, and Ryan Suter are all healthy and ready to go for tonight’s game. And I still believe it’s questionable to call Radulov their best forward. Maybe in a video-game style, shootout competition “best player” sense of the word, but given the dump-and-chase, grinding, defense-first style that the Predators endorse, Radulov is far from it. Alexander Semin may be one of the most talented players in the game, but Dale Hunter still feels that Jay Beagle is more deserving of ice-time in these playoffs. “Best forward,” depending on the team, the style, and the time of the season, is a very generic term.

    Comparing Alexander Radulov, and what he means to the Predators, to Ilya Kovalchuk and what he means to the Devils, is a bit of a stretch. Kovalchuk has scored 30+ goals in the NHL (note the distinction) for 9 years running, and scored 40+ goals for 6 straight years before going to New Jersey. Kovy has played the North American game his whole life. He battles, he gets it. His performance this year speaks to what the playoffs mean to him. Radulov at a bar at 3 a.m. the night before game 2 speaks to what the playoffs mean to him. Those two men are not in the same league (literally and figuratively).
    *and as a side-note, the KHL MVP is akin to winning the AHL MVP, though I doubt Radulov would even win that if he played a year in the American League. Different game, different competition, apples-to-oranges in a sense.

    “The other issue at risk here is the psyche of the two players you need in the right frame of mind.” I think that issue, in and of itself, was addressed at 4 a.m. in the morning in Glendale. That ship has sailed. This isn’t a “now think about what you’ve done, are you sorry?” This is a treason-level violation of not only team rules, but team culture and trust. The Predators leadership core let this guy back in their dressing room, after everything he did, and said “here is your chance to show us how bad you want to play in the NHL.” Breaking curfew, and then turning in the performance he did in game 2, told Shea Weber, David Legwand, Ryan Suter, Pekka Rinne, and Barry Trotz exactly where his head is at. They clearly aren’t in the right frame of mind already, so 1 game on the bench is not going to fix that, and if you lose them by benching them for another game, you never had them to begin with.
    *as another side-note, if you were the Captain of a team battling for a championship, and two-guys you brought in late in the season did that, would you want them on the ice over the likes of Tootoo? I honestly don’t believe you would.

    So in reality, is 1 game “doing your time” for the crime they committed? Regardless of whether or not they did something worse that we don’t know about, violating a team rule during such a critical time in the season is enough to warrant a full-out boycott on Radulov/Kostitsyn. It was a questionable move when they brought him back to begin with and it left a lot of unanswered questions (does it mess with team chemistry? will he buy into the system this late in the season? etc.). Those questions were answered the night before Game 2, and the result was played out in front of millions of people with millions of dollars on the line.

    At the end of the day, superstition has nothing to do with this coaching decision. It’s a lot bigger than that. It has to do with an opportunity for the Nashville Predators to make a real statement as a team, and they’ve chosen to move on without two of the guys they feel aren’t ready to compete and play Predators hockey. Nashville was a strong team for a long time before those two showed up, and they proved it with a big 2-0 win in game 3 without Radulov/Kostitsyn. We will eventually hear the real details that led to the benchings, but if I had to guess, it went something like this:

    After the poor performance in game 2 – highlighted by Radulov’s complete inability to play Predators hockey and displaying a very lethargic, unmotivated approach to the game – Trotz discovers that Kostisyn/Radulov broke a team rule. He suspends them for game 3, brings back Tootoo and Halischuk, and the Preds real-off a big 2-0 victory. He then talks to Weber, Rinne, and Poile, and determines that the TEAM itself wants to win (or lose) with the guys that got them there. They don’t want the fate of their season to hinge on a rental player that broke their trust and hurt their team. They go with the guys who got them there, at least for now.

    All of the above seems like a no-brainer to me, regardless of how good Radulov is.

    But I guess we’re going to find out tonight!

    • THIS. ^^^

      Trotz has noted that with Eastern European players, there are often lingering trust issues. I think at this point, it’s a question of “Even if these guys are our best offensive forwards, do we trust these players enough to put them in the lineup and if we put them in, why are we doing it?” Are they really that much better and if they are, how are we defining better? Is it because they’re expensive? Is it because they’re high-profile? Is it to save face for management because of all the effort that was expended to obtain them? Is it to put more butts in the seats? Is it to not upset them such that they might not want to resign with us? Are these valid reasons to insert guys into a playoff game lineup? Are these EVER valid justifications?

      As Taylor points out, 46 & 47 never were part of Nashville’s core team or culture. If anything, they should have been trying even harder to prove themselves – to prove to their teammates that they belonged and appreciated the opportunity to compete for a roster spot on a playoff team. Rad’s KHL team lost in the playoffs, and his playoff run several years back with Nashville was extremely short (hello, Red Wings). And AK was shackled to the hapless Habs – not exactly gonna make the playoffs on that team this year, eh? He also had to contend with the merciless, intrusive Montreal media that is notorious for eating players alive. This was his opportunity to jump at a second chance in Nashville, to play in the playoffs for once AND to play with his brother as a bonus. ???

      Commitment, drive and buy-in is as important as talent and chops; if you’re not interested in playing – let alone playing to win – what’s the point of playing elite guys? And what’s the point of trading for them/negotiating their return in the first place? We are seeing yet again this year that sometimes the best playoff performers are guys who had meh seasons. Lineups are always a gamble, but during the playoffs they become more of a calculated risk.

      Again, I suspect there was always a problem with these two right out of the gate, and that the pressure of having to healthy scratch perfectly capable and hungry guys regularly to specifically make room for these two became unbearable for the coaches and unacceptable to the players. The team’s mojo and equilibrium needs to get righted and keeping them out of the lineup for the time being is the right decision. For whatever reason(s), they cannot be trusted.

  9. Like you Mr. Bourne I suspect that the misconduct might have been of a more serious nature than we have been led to believe.Much more than mere superstition at play here . Despite the obvious risks this was a carefully calculated decision anchored in a clear headed assessment of the facts and their potential impact on the team’s fortunes. I anticipate much more detailed information about what actually transpired will be forthcoming in the aftermath of the playoffs . The opinions of Suter & Weber no carry a lot of weight with Preds management and was probably a strong factor behind this extended reprimand. Not sure about Kostitsyn’s standing in the room but in Radulov’s case it is well publicized that he is an exceptionally talented if immature player whose selfishness and other detrimental habits have been stoically tolerated up until now. In the immortal words of the sagacious King of the cock rockers Robert Plant …” All will be revealed…”

  10. Not our decision. If we can win without them during the season, we can win without them now. Have faith and be positive instead of being so boringly negative. You’ll feel so much better.

  11. Risk my ass there both grown men….what kind of player would you have in your starting line up…”a hungover one, or a hungry for a chance to play”?

  12. Totally agree with the column, if you don’t want them back suspend them indefinitely. Too much pride here me thinks. Nashville keeps mentioning they played their game last time out. I didn’t see that terrific game, I saw a all-star goalie win a game. To risk having two snipers in what is likely to be a tight game four out of your line-up when they have already served their punishment is asinine!

  13. Chemistry > Skill

  14. Rad and Kos aren’t even close to being Nashville’s best players. I would’ve told ‘em to turn in the jerseys, they’re done as Predators.

  15. Pizzo got his wish – they got blanked.

  16. And what do the Preds do now?

    Nashville left two of its better offensive players out of the lineup and were shutout at home in one of the biggest games in franchise history.

  17. Last night was an entirely predictable result. You can’t be proving some moral point in Game 4 of the Conference semi finals. For all the narrative hungry ‘play the right way’ crowd – you saw first hand a team that purposefully didnt put out its best team last might and laid an egg on home ice. Rad and AK might not have helped but they’ll be in the lineup next game – proving that it was useless to have them out in the first place. Terrible coaching decision that was endowed by too many who were caught up in their own self-righteous Russian witch-hunt. Even worse : will a second round exit be enough to convince Nashville’s FAs not to sign elsewhere next year? Because winning is ultimately what it comes down to – and Nashville apparently values punctuality more than winning.

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