Having lost their General, Andrei Markov, a year earlier to the KHL, the European combine in Stockholm made Trevor Timmins and Marc Bergevin aware of a new Russian defender that might be able to fill a void in the Montreal Canadiens’ lineup in a few year’s time.
Alexander Romanov had showcased himself in the Under-18 World Championship, and when the confusion among Montreal media and fans in Dallas on the 23rd of June rose to peak level, no one could have predicted that this season would become the ‘Year of The Tsar.’
Initial confusion was replaced by a sort of wonder when the KHL season started and Romanov took a place in the starting lineup of the best team outside the NHL: CSKA Moscow. A club steeped in the same kind of history as the Montreal Canadiens, and with the same expectations to shoulder every season. The Red Army team had been in the Gagarin Cup final three times in the last four years, and having lost two of the three finals previously, the pressure to succeed this year was extreme.
In a league where age and experience is held in high esteem, there were just 18 defenders aged 17-19. Romanov led this group in games played with 43, while only Valeri Orekhov (41) joined him as defenders in that age group playing more than 24 games; 12 players only playing 23 games combined. Romanov had 11:23 of ice time per game, which is exceptional considering the stregnth of the team that he plays for.
In one of the early games of the season, Romanov came up against a player who is nearly synonymous with the KHL itself, Sergei Mozyakin, who has scored at will even at the tail end of his career. Was there a hint of stage fright, of nerves when going against a player that can still split defences? The answer was a resounding “No.” Romanov stood up and played his smart game, something that he would continue to do the whole season through.
Last gif. No panic when Mozyakin, of all players, goes against him. Romanov makes sure to get the puck, and put it back into the attacking zone and get on with his defensive assignment. The poise here is incredible for an 18 year old defender. #EPR for @HabsEOTP #TheTsar pic.twitter.com/UfxM5vRgED— Patrik Bexell (@Zeb_Habs) September 7, 2018
Not many Canadiens fans were aware of what was going on in the KHL and what The Tsar really could do, so the next week Romanov presented us all with this bomb:
#TheTsar with another heavy hit in the dying seconds of the second period.— Patrik Bexell (@Zeb_Habs) September 13, 2018
Two big big hits in the second period where Alexander Romanov played 3:13, and has 6:38 in total after two periods. #Habs #EPR for @HabsEOTP pic.twitter.com/NRD9TXz1cC
There was still talk about limited ice time, and usage by CSKA’s coach Igor Nikitin, but the trend was there for all to see who watched the game, as covered in an early September article.
Romanov was eased into a role with one of the top ice hockey teams in the world. He was being used where he would learn a lot and when mistakes weren’t game-breakers. Most importantly, when he did make a mistake, he was not benched, but rather told to get out and learn from it.
While Habs fans were learning about Romanov’s progress, not many others knew about him until the 2019 World Junior Championship, even though he had been a big part of a Russian team that won the Canada/Russia Challenge leading up to the tournament. Still, in the first game of the WJC against Denmark, Romanov stole the show, and the hearts of Montreal’s fans, with an exquisite performance. He scored a goal while displaying confidence and offensive play that hadn’t been seen in his role in the KHL.
At the end of the World Juniors, Romanov was named the best defender in the tournament, with Russia claiming the bronze medal. His achievement was recognized before CSKA’s next home game in the KHL, something that a club so steeped in history doesn’t do lightly. It was a measure of how prized Romanov has come to be in the Moscow club.
Russians are a romantic people, and of course no one was surprised when his first goal came at home against Ak Bars Kazan, a team that is coached by former Russian ice hockey great Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, Romanov’s own grandfather.
Romanov’s hockey IQ is very high. He has shown that by adapting to the second-best league in the world with little trouble. He has played a smart and secure game, knowing when to step up for a hit or go for the goal.
Most importantly, he has also shown it when he has faced off against his peers, dominating games and carrying his team against stellar opposition. In two vastly different situations, he is able to play the game of hockey in different ways to do what’s best for his team by knowing his abilities.
A great coach once described awareness to me as ‘checking his shoulders’ (i.e. looking over his shoulders to gauge the situation), and you can see how well Romanov does this. He will always know where the puck is, where the open ice is, and where his teammates are. It helps him make the right decision almost all of the time. This will only help Romanov’s development and have him gain even more experience at an early stage of his career.
Another part of Romanov’s play that impressed me a lot this year was his physical game in a men’s league. Romanov has been able to stand up, deliver big hits, and force turnovers. The fact is that players grew aware of his physical nature and approached him in a different way toward the end of the season than at the start. Opponents were more careful, looked up more, and in some instances created more space.
Hockey-wise Romanov’s skating stands out. He can move the puck up the ice and defend with speed with similar ease. His fluid yet strong skating and balance help him in all situations on the ice. This will ease the transition into a bigger role with CSKA and further down the line into a role with the Canadiens.
I am really nitpicking here, but there are things that Romanov will need to change to really become a great defender. A main one is his stick work. He is quick to do small cross-checks and taps on the attackers, especially in front of the net. He needs to be smarter here, and it might just be down to the fact that he hasn’t grown into a professional hockey player’s body just yet and thinks he needs that element to defend effectively.
He is a defender and so production shouldn’t really come first, but he showed in the WJC what he could do offensively, and next season will be a chance for him to showcase that untapped potential in KHL, when he should get a role higher up in CSKA’s lineup.
Every expectation anyone had was shattered by Sascha (as he is called in Russia) this season. He has played 43 games in the KHL while flying over the Atlantic twice for different tournaments and to the Far East twice for games in the KHL. He was a leader on the ice for Russia’s WJC team, and as a result was picked for two games with Russia’s national team development squad, where he scored two assists in his time with the team. While he was left as the seventh defender after a minor injury in the Gagarin Cup Playoffs, he was a key part of the CSKA team that won the championship in the end.
Ryan Poehling, who participated with Romanov at the WJC, described the defenceman after his own NHL debut. “He’s physical, smart, quick. He’s the real deal.”
There is no other grade to give. Romanov had success wherever he played this year.
Of course the season wouldn’t be complete without the fairytale ending, and CSKA won the Gagarin Cup in the end. It was one young Russian phenom, Kirill Kaprizov, who handed over the cup to Romanov:
On December 31, 1975, the two most storied ice hockey clubs in the world played a game that has been hailed as one of, if not the best games of hockey ever played. Almost 45 years later, the two clubs are intertwined again; this time following the development of a young defender who has been part a Cup win for one club, and will be an integral part in the challenge for the other club to reach the same heights. There is no one who second-guesses the Montreal Canadiens’ 38th pick of the 2019 NHL Draft anymore.