BOCA RATON, Fla. - Alex Radulov's potential return to the NHL is causing almost as much controversy as his departure.
With NHL general managers gathered for their annual March meetings, virtually all of the buzz Tuesday surrounded the league's decision to allow the 25-year-old Russian forward to rejoin the Nashville Predators without clearing waivers.
The decision was made in conjunction with NHL Players' Association and relayed to the GMs by deputy commissioner Bill Daly. Some weren't happy.
"This group shouldn't have been surprised by this," said Daly. "I've given that advice consistently with respect to every player who has gone AWL on his contract. But, the guys in this room are competitors.
"So I certainly understand that they might like the result in this situation to be different."
There is still no guarantee Radulov is on his way back, although Predators GM David Poile said "in his gut" he believes the timing is right for it to happen.
Radulov famously bolted Nashville in 2008 for the newly formed KHL in his homeland despite having one year left on his entry-level contract. The NHL team is willing to welcome him back, which would allow Radulov to burn off the final season of that deal if he plays just one game.
"All the things are aligned," said Poile. "The (KHL) playoffs are over, the hurdles are cleared. He can burn off the year, get himself to free agency. More important than all of that, I've always felt like he was going to come back.
"From the day he left I always felt he would come back to the best league in the world."
Radulov could be a potential game-changer for a Predators team that has Stanley Cup aspirations. He scored 26 goals as a sophomore in the NHL and went on to become a two-time KHL MVP and Russian Olympian, prompting some to label him the best player outside of North America.
With less than a month to play in the regular season, some of Nashville's rivals were unhappy that the NHL opened the door for him to return. Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland, whose team could draw the Predators in the first round of the playoffs, refused to comment on the decision.
Others accepted it with gritted teeth.
"Fair or unfair, I guess you just have live with the ruling," said St. Louis Blues GM Doug Armstrong, another Central Division rival. "Bill and (commissioner) Gary (Bettman) have difficult decisions to make. They felt that this is the acceptable way. He's a suspended player, they're going to lift the suspension and allow him to play.
"We have to just move forward and accept it."
On Tuesday, the GMs also decided to move forward and recommend a new hybrid icing rule with the specific language around it still to be hammered out. That's expected to happen before the competition committee meets in June.
The NHL will enact a rule that is slightly different than the one used in NCAA hockey, which sees the play blown dead if the defending player reaches the faceoff dot in his own zone ahead of an attacking player in an icing situation.
"Hybrid icing is not a perfect rule," said Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke. "They had a couple of problems with NCAA games this past weekend. So we've got to refine exactly how it's called and implement it. But I think it’s important.
"You guys know I've been pushing for this for a long time. (Touch icing) puts defencemen in our league at unnecessary risk on a play that really isn't a scoring chance or anything. So this is a real positive development."
Word first emerged Monday that the change was coming. It was met with a positive reaction from players who have seen some of their colleagues suffer serious injuries after crashing into the endboards while racing back for the puck.
"I do kind of understand the race aspect of it so if we can come up with a way to keep it in there but move it away from the boards, which is essentially what it's doing, then I'm sure you're not going to find too many defencemen who are against it," said Winnipeg Jets blue-liner Ron Hainsey.
The discussion around that rule change was limited to the official sessions held at a posh resort on Florida's Atlantic coast. However, the Radulov decision spilled over to the social time managers spent together on Monday night.
One of the biggest complicating factors surrounding it is lack of precedent.
Jiri Hudler returned to the Red Wings last season after bolting for the KHL and was forced to honour a two-year arbitration award he had previously skipped out on. However, that return didn't come at the end of a season.
Some of the GMs resent the fact Radulov isn't being punished for turning his back on the Predators and refusing to honour his original NHL contract.
"He gets his cake and eats it too," said Armstrong. "This isn't anything against Nashville, not at all. It's the player. He gets to make all the decisions and gets to reap the benefits of whatever he decides to do."
Notes: At the request of the NHL GMs, the American Hockey League has agreed to put in a "ringette line" across the top of the circles next season that will be used to measure two-line passes. The NHL will monitor the results ... The GMs decided to shelve a proposal to eliminate hand passes in the defensive zone for at least another year ... Director of officiating Terry Gregson will send out a memo urging referees to watch line changes more closely. That could result in an increased number of penalty calls for too many men.
With files from Scott Edmonds in Winnipeg.