Last weekend the KHL started its new season. Many, including myself, see the KHL as the second-best league in the world at the moment.
When Alexander Romanov was drafted by the Montreal Canadiens, the experts, after a gasp of air, considered what the expectations were for Romanov in the upcoming season. The consensus was that the World Junior Hockey Championship would be realistic, while Romanov would most likely be playing in the MHL (the junior league) or VHL (the farm league). Neither the young Russian nor his coach Igor Nikitin, seemed to be paying attention, because in the first game of the KHL season Romanov was not only in the CSKA squad, he was on the ice and played for over seven minutes against Traktor Chelyabinsk.
The following game, a much closer contest against Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg, a game CSKA lost in the end, Romanov was held to two minutes on the ice, and didn’t play in the third period.
With this in mind, concern was rippling through Montreal fans about the kind of development Romanov would get in the KHL, forgetting in ways the level of the league Romanov was already playing at, even if it was in short minutes.
In the third game of the road trip, Romanov played a bit over five minutes when CSKA won against Metallurg Magnitogorsk.
With three games played, the trend was easy to spot, and the thought process from coach Nikitin on how he was handling his defender was obvious. Romanov would play more time at the end of the period rather than in the beginning, most likely to make sure he would be fresh while the others were getting a bit fatigued.
Romanov would play less time in the second period, most likely due to the long change and possible mistakes that could happen because of it. In the third period Romanov would get the most minutes, as opposing players would be fatigued and he would be fresh and could adapt better to the speed of the game.
The last observation was that if CSKA was up — and that happens more often than not — Romanov would get more minutes, as seen from the game against Traktor, in comparison with the game against Avtomobilist. In this way, a mistake from the young defender wouldn’t cause too many problems for CSKA and he would get the chance to build his hockey career without fear of costing his team.
It seems to be damage limitation from coach Nikitin, while still building up a confidence and giving Romanov the best chance to succeed. It’s something that might not have been obvious for everyone to see when just looking at the time on ice stat.
CSKA faced Dynamo Moscow (technically on the road), and with an early lead, Romanov got to play. In his fourth game of his pro career Romanov played 11:36. It could be because of the advantage on the scoreboard, but also because Romanov had impressed in his short tenure, especially in the game against Metallurg,
Lining up a hit, but here you can see he needs to improve his strength and balance as he falls down after without taking out the attacker. But his mobility lets him keep the attacker on the outside all the time. #EPR for @HabsEOTP #TheTsar pic.twitter.com/aXEreHUyS9— Patrik Bexell (@Zeb_Habs) September 7, 2018
Romanov’s agility stands out, as does his hockey IQ. While not overly flashy, he is secure without being a “stay-at-home” defender. Not every shift is a highlight reel shift, but what strikes me is that Romanov does so many things right, especially many of the smallest things.
When you look simply at time on ice as a development tool, you’re missing out on the context of the scoreboard. It’s important to consider Nikitin’s development approach so far before wondering if Romanov would be better off in another league. Playing at 18 in one of the top teams in the world is evidence enough that Romanov is progressing.