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Alexander Romanov’s future: The KHL, the NHL, and the Olympic conundrum

Romanov stood out at the Junior level, but how soon will he be showing his skills in a Candiens sweater?

Russia v Switzerland: Bronze Medal Game - 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images

After a successful World Junior Hockey Championship there is a lot of talk about Montreal Canadiens defence prospect Alexander Romanov, who led defenders in points and ended up tied for third among all skaters in the tournament. Marc Bergevin spoke warmly about Romanov in his recent press conference, and a lot of the Montreal media have caught on to the defender’s progress. In an interview with Dan Robertson of TSN690, Marc Bergevin said, “I know it’s early, but you can definitely see in a year from now he could play in the NHL on the third pairing all day long.”

There are a few problems with this idea, and I will take a look at each one of them.

1) There is no KHL/NHL agreement

What does this mean? A player with a valid KHL contract can not break this contract in order to go to the NHL. The KHL club would have to be thoroughly compensated just as with the deal for Vadim Shipachyov. The KHL is looking for a soccer kind of transfer system where the club that sells the player gets a market price for the player rather than a set development compensation (as Sweden’s SHL does). KHL clubs use the salary of the remaining contract as an indication of what the player will have to pay up in order to get out of the contract. Therefore, players will stay in the European league for the contract period they have signed up for as an entry-level agreement can’t compensate for the salary being paid back to the KHL team.

2) Romanov has a KHL contract that is valid for the 2019-20 season

Even if there was a KHL/NHL agreement, Romanov was picked in the second round and could not be brought over to the NHL by the club that drafted him. Only first-rounders can be “forced over,” in the same way as Jesperi Kotkaniemi was at the start of his rookie season despite a valid Liiga contract with Ässät.

There will be no Romanov in Montreal at the start of the next season. It is not as easy as many think to get players to join the NHL club.

3) CSKA can negotiate a new contract with Romanov at any given time, Montreal can not.

This gives CSKA a chance to pursue a contract extension with a player who will, at that point, be a first- or second-pairing defender. That contract will be at a much higher value than the US $925.000 maximum salary that a NHL entry-level deal is worth (with added bonuses, the contract could come up to a maximum of $3,775,000 a year).

This is something that might force the player’s hand to stay in Russia for another couple of years; the salary would be higher in the KHL, and that’s something another touted prospect, Kirill Kaprizov, has benefited from. It can certainly be argued that Minnesota Wild messed up things with regard to their top prospect, who chose to sign with CSKA for a chance to win the Gagarin Cup rather than go over the Atlantic and play for his NHL team. I don’t see Romanov or CSKA going for a one-year extension in this case, but rather a two- or three-year contract extension would be what the different parties would sign up to.

However not all is doom and gloom on the Montreal side of things. As explained in the Hockey Wilderness article linked above, it seems that Minnesota did not do its due diligence to have a direct conversation with the player. Bergevin should use this as a lesson in what not to do, and should use any chance he has to speak with Romanov directly, and discuss the role that the defenceman will have on the team. (It might be good to leave out “third pairing” when speaking with the defensive talent, as he would most likely push for a top-four role with CSKA at the time of the negotiation, maybe even top-two. Third pairing might therefore be seen as a demotion.)

No matter the case, Romanov will not be coming over to North America to play in the AHL; he will come when he is ready to grab a spot in NHL.

It is encouraging to hear the general manager already acknowledging the potential of one of the newest draft selections, pointing out that he could potentially play in the NHL within a year. It should point to the fact that when Montreal gets the chance to bring him over, he will be with the big club for good. This should also encourage Romanov to come over — when he feels the time is right.

Romanov has stated a few times that he enjoys watching NHL games and he lists a couple of forwards as his favourites — Patrick Kane and Alexander Ovechkin — so it would be expected that he would want to try his game in the best league in the world.

There are a few things outside of Bergevin’s control when it comes to a Romanov signing. With the blue-liner’s contract finishing in 2020, two things stand out. The first year Romanov could play in NHL would be the potential lockout season of 2020-21. Adding to the potential problems for Bergevin and the Canadiens is the inclusion (or not) of NHL players in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

Those could be deciding factors for Romanov in whether he comes to the NHL at that time. The uncertainty could definitely make the KHL more enticing for another two years. Once more using Kaprizov as the example, the forward went to the Olympics and has the gold medal to show for it, something Romanov’s idol, Ovechkin, has not been able to achieve in his career. The decision on NHL player participation in the Olympics can therefore be a deciding factor for a Russian player who is not yet locked in to deal in the world’s top league. Romanov’s grandfather, Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, won the Olympic gold in Sarajevo in 1984 with the Soviet Union, and you would have to think that Romanov would want to achieve that same honour.

The Tsar seems to value a Gagarin Cup win, much in the same way as Kaprizov seems to value the trophy, so for Montreal fans, it might be worth cheering for CSKA to win the KHL championship this season to make sure one item is ticked off Romanov’s list.