The 2019 World Junior Hockey Championship was Alexander Romanov’s tournament. No other prospect exceeded expectations more than the Montreal Canadiens’ second-rounder. He came onto the big stage with an equally big game against Denmark, impressed everyone with his play, and never really disappointed afterward, earning the distinction of top defenceman of the tournament.
His intensity in his defensive game, sticking to opposing forwards with his quickness and edgework, pressuring them with his stick and body at every chance, enabled him to win a majority of one-on-one battle, and that despite his young age and relatively small stature for a defender.
Romanov has great posture, is attentive to detail away from the puck, and shows sound positioning. He’s smart away from the puck, constantly gathering information on the opposition with shoulder checks, allowing him to break up a lot of plays and cut passing lanes.
His ability to read the game also transitioned into offence on many occasions for the Russian National Team when he jumped up from his position in the neutral zone to intercept a pass and get the puck in the offensive zone. He showed the same ability to keep it in the other team’s end with timely pinches from the blue line.
Romanov can make efficient transitions and even showed another level in his puck-moving, rushing it out and making impressive passes under pressure against weaker teams, where the dominance of the Russians allowed him more liberties.
All of those are qualities that should continue getting better for the prospect, and be part of his core identity.
On top of all that, Romanov, with one goal and seven assists, also finished first in points among defencemen, and tied for second overall among all skaters at the World Juniors. It was an incredible performance for a player that will also be eligible for the event next year.
This is a clear indication that there is more offence in the prospect than previously considered. He showed he can produce against his age group.
Does that make him an offensive defenceman in the making? I would say that, despite what he showed in the tournament, especially his production, Romanov still hasn’t shown to be driving offence in an NHL-projectable way.
He has good hands, great skating, a powerful shot, and displayed a couple of impressive offensive flashes — notably once when he jumped from the blue line, faked a defender, and shot the puck on net for an assist against Denmark. But there are still some elements lacking from the prospect’s offensive play that would beed to be added before we could say that he will be getting many points in the offensive zone in the NHL.
The first one is his offensive awareness. Romanov shoots. And he shoots a lot. That is a good thing, as we often see the opposite in prospects who tend to defer to others to get the puck on net. The defenceman finished the tournament with 15 shots on goal, but had directed substantially more toward the target.
In the NHL, both forwards and defencemen get told to block shots in their own end. They are very good at reading opposing attackers to know where and when to get in the shooting lane. Considering this, there are a few ways Romanov will have to improve his shooting abilities.
An analysis of a few elements Romanov could work on to make his offensive game better.
He needs to become more deceptive in his shooting. It’s clear most of the time that the defenceman is preparing himself to shoot at the blue line. He looks at the puck — strictly at the puck — has his bottom hand lower on his stick, and the stick itself high in the air, ready for a release. With his feet planted, or barely moving at all, he signals to the defender responsible for covering him to be ready to get his stick in an easily anticipated shooting lane.
The fact that Romanov is so focused on the pass he might receive to fire on net doesn’t let him recognize the space he has to skate closer to the net, where he will have a much better chance to score from. It happened very often in this tournament that Romanov released from the blue line, even with time and space to pull off the same big shot from the top of the circle, which would give less time to the defence and goalie to react.
Romanov’s lack of offensive awareness doesn’t let him see teammates that are in better position to release than himself. He is so focused on his shooting opportunity that he doesn’t consider passing to his forwards in the slot, or carry the puck up to do the same.
Even if he doesn’t consider passing, having his stick down on the ice, and his hand position in the same place for a shot or a pass, would give less indication as to what he is going to do (probably shoot) to defenders looking to cover him.
Finally, shot selection is also an issue with Romanov. Yes, he needs to get closer to the net for his releases, but he also has to understand what types of shots are best in what situations.
Romanov loves his TSAR BOMBA (credit to Patrik Bexell for that one), and it’s hard to not love the big slapshot. That said, the long windup sometimes closes the window that the defender has allowed to get the puck on net. He could accomplish the same task of getting the puck to the net with a quicker snap or wrist shot from the blue line, which is something the majority of NHL defencemen have adopted in the modern game.
Romanov’s results at the WJC speak for themselves. The above elements are all just details, but details matter in projecting offence to the next level.
Josh Brook is an example of a defenceman who tends to remain deceptive in his choice at the blue line, looking around before he receives the puck, keeping his head up as he has it on his stick, always in motion, hands in the same position for a pass or a shot, using wristers just as well as slapshots, and finding his teammates when he sees an occasion for a better play. Those elements and consistency executing them led him to his most productive season this year, and his surprise invite to the tournament.
Romanov has shown that he is an excellent defenceman in many aspects of the game, but there is still room to grow. Of course, he is 18. There is time for him to develop his offensive touch.
What plays in his favour is that the Russian prospect seems like an extremely coachable young player. That was evident with his immediate change of style upon his arrival with the national team, and his desire to play true to the defensive system and not overdo it in the wrong situations. He could realistically be taught a lot from the right coaches on his path to the NHL.
No matter what is missing right now, he remains an exciting project, and his performance at the tournament will leave a lasting impression on the hockey world.
You can also read a similar article on Jesse Ylönen and how he could use his skating to create more offence.