Despite a long hockey career, Alexander Radulov remains a bit of a mystery to North American analysts and coaches. In this article I’ll identify Radulov’s strengths and the best way for Michel Therrien and the Montreal Canadiens to take advantage of them.
I see many breakdowns of the new Habs forward, with video footage used from two main places: his time with Nashville or with Team Russia. Perhaps it’s laziness, perhaps people are still scared of the KHL’s website, but to ignore the several seasons of footage from there is not only ignorant, but also misses much of Radulov’s creativity.
You can analyze Radulov’s first goal with the Canadiens against the Penguins and draw lazy comparisons to the one other place people seem to know him from, but to really understand Radulov you have to look at the footage from his time in between NHL stops. So here we are going to take a look at two power play goals and Weber’s first Habs marker by Radulov, break them down bit by bit, and draw comparisons to his deployment under Michel Therrien.
Now of course many of you are shouting “BUT IT’S THE KHL!” I’ve tried to keep things somewhat familiar. Two of the goals are against SKA and MMG, both very recent Gagarin Champions, and CSKA rivals. With this we look at the highest tier of KHL hockey, arguably the closest we can get to NHL level, and show CSKA in a position where they are actually being challenged by their competition.
Radulov’s Goal vs Metallurg Magnitogorsk
First we’ll dissect an extended play from game №74 of the 15/16 Gagarin Cup Playoffs. For what it’s worth, Metallurg Magnitogorsk would go onto win the Gagarin cup. Let’s take a closer look at both the screencaps and the diagram of Radulov’s position.
Here we see that Radulov’s two main positions in the set play are by the face-off circle and closer to the blue line. Radulov opts to hold possession and pass the puck off, and then when he retrieves it, he returns to the blue line, letting Nikita Zaitsev go in deep. In general it’s a trend we see with many of the KHL snipers. Another example is Artemy Panarin. Now with the Blackhawks last year Panarin played almost the exact same role as he did with SKA, diving in from the faceoff circle to snipe, or a taking a one timer pass instead of having the partner shoot directly into his screen. It is important to note that the bigger ice size allows for more shenanigans like we see in the above gif. It also means the person in rotation has more ice to actually move and look around. Observe how much space Radulov actually takes up:
Notice how even though screeners and blue liners are in place Radulov never reaches the crease nor the blue line fully. This is what distinguishes him from perimeter shooters like Ilya Kovalchuk, or more in-tight shooters like Sergei Mozyakin. It’s also what separates Radulov from a “professional screener” such as Patrick Thoresen, or even Brendan Gallagher, who exists to redirect the puck and chip in rebounds. Perhaps it’s a general trend of Russian snipers, but it’s a skill that shouldn’t be wasted in the NHL as Radulov has been so far. I note this because when we look at the Habs power play we can see the difference.
As the play goes on Radulov stays back while Zaitsev and others crash the net after the shot attempt. This allows him to use the open space to receive the pass and snipe it in. This ending is perhaps one of the most consistent things we will look at through these goals since it’s what we can call Radulov’s sweet spot. Radulov moves only subtly without the puck and everyone on the team knows he’s there and open for a pass.
Weber’s Goal vs Coyotes
While you might not fully get away with that in the NHL’s smaller surface as we saw above, it is important to see the positioning and how Radulov actually likes to stay pretty far from the net. We can use a very recent example of this. It’s actually a power play goal by Shea Weber that shows Radulov fighting between his nature and where he’s been told to go.
At the start of the play you see Radulov leave the screen, but nobody covers for him, because that’s where he is supposed to be sitting. Moving instead to his comfier side, he brings the puck around and looks for the shot just like he would in the KHL. He passes off instead then runs back for the screen as Weber’s shot flies past.
You can the minor bit of confusion this causes:
This leaves three Habs on the right side of the goal. There’s no screen and there are too many players blocking up for the pass back. Before it reaches Weber and Radulov goes back into a screen, you can see that this leaves Weber and Radulov alone with the most of the PK unit. Any outward rebounds go to them, and it removes the option for Weber to go inwards, or in general move at all, unlike Zaitsev in the above example where he was able to close the distance for a shot.
It looks like a broken play, but Radulov gets back into position as a (good) screen and the goal goes in. While this might seem like something viable and a clever strategy to use, as it works out well in the above example, we’ve now seen in multiple games that the pass Weber is really a fallback strategy. It is not only repetitive and can easily lead to a turnover, but it also removes the versatility and creativity the Habs should be getting from players like Radulov and Lehkonen.
Radulov’s Goal vs XXX
Now the next goal is a very short simple one, and with it I want to demonstrate less of the passing and Radulov’s actual positioning and shooting tendencies. This one comes from game №72 of the Western Conference Final of the 2014/2015, a game that would go on to kickstart SKA’s 0:3 comeback that year.
The passing and positioning stay almost the same as the previous example, even down to the miniature cycles around the face-off circle, but we see where Radulov takes the shot. It’s a weak goal for Koskinen to let in but there’s so many little things we need to take in. First, Radulov circles the same area that we identified previously. He holds possession even when threatened, and as he goes to assist and the screen falls over, Radulov opts to suddenly take the shot. In this simple movement we are seeing Radulov’s quick decision making while on the power play. He dictates it the play and reacts to what is going with the opponent, same as he did on the Habs power play, choosing to be creative rather than sit in the same set play. And the fact that he took the initiative almost immediately after his teammate falls over is the exact reason why he shouldn’t be locked in as a screen.
Now if we pull up a diagram we can plot on here where both these shots come from and the routes. Our 3 PP shots are in red and with blue coloured trails for even strength goals from the same SKA series. Regardless of the situation, this is where he wants to be.
We begin to see that Radulov definitely has a sweet spot. This is perhaps why he has so much chemistry with Galchenyuk; they have similar styles, waiting for their chance and then shooting from these slightly tighter angled areas. The emphasis is on being creative and sniping more so than perimeter shots or screening, as we saw with the previous Habs power play example. His three main skills on a power play are simple: creativity, puck-handling and the tight angle shot.
To explore them further, we can see the creativity in the second example, with Radulov taking the initiative when he gets his chance. We see possession with constant turning and moving and reluctance to shoot or pass unless it is safe.
Therrien and company obviously have a way of looking at Radulov which is a little bit different than how his former coach Dmitry Kvartalnov did. Perhaps this will work itself out, but through 5 games we’ve seen repeatedly that Desharnais is where Radulov should be, and Radulov is left the crease area territory. This problem is made worse at even strength with Tomas Plekanec as Radulov’s center. Plekanec is not as reactive as Stephane Da Costa, and so far this season has not been on the same skill level as either Lehkonen or Galchenyuk. Whether this is a sign of age or just lacklustre play is really not part of this post, but it is curious to note how this glued on “Euro” line translates to the power play. If the Habs wish to keep a working power play, the pass the Weber tactic needs a little more to it and the coaching staff can get that by recreating Dmitry Kvartalnov’s use of Radulov.
To summarize here are the key points:
- Radulov is a core finisher for the power play unit and should be given more of a role on the Habs.
- Radulov’s creativity is hindered when he is used as a screen.
- Mixing up the power play threats between Weber and Radulov, just like with Radulov and Zaitsev, would be beneficial and keep the power play fresh.
- “Big ice” creativity has a place in the NHL, but is rarely brought to the “small ice.” Instead we get a gritty and tough game that does not play to Radulov’s strengths.