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Frozen Frames: Alexander Romanov proved his NHL readiness at 2020 World Juniors

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The defenceman brought a different game to this year’s event, and it was instrumental in Russia’s silver-medal run.

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

The 2020 World Junior Hockey Championship was a great occasion for Alexander Romanov to again dominate in his age group. He was the pillar of the Russian team, playing top minutes and contributing at both ends of the ice. The Russians made it all the way to the Gold Medal Game and were minutes from escaping with a title due in no small part to the play of the defenceman.

Here’s a video analysis of his play at the tournament, with voice-over and text inserts. The script of the video has also been added below for those who prefer the written form.

Romanov wore #26 with the Russian U-20 team

Script from the video

Alexander Romanov’s progression has been amazing. He went from being considered a draft reach to one of the better defence prospects outside the NHL.

We don’t know exactly when he’s going to join Montreal. It could be next year, two years from now — Patrik Bexell reported that he might be signing a new deal in the KHL. But, in the meantime, it’s better to remain hopeful. Romanov is ready for the NHL — there’s no doubt about it.

What stands out the most in his game are the big hip-checks. He loves to hammer players and shows pretty good timing in doing so. It’s a lost art, but one that he could help bring back.

Even when he’s not laying big hits, Romanov still uses his body effectively. He lowers his shoulder and slips in front of opponents to separate them from the puck. He also wins inside positioning the same way to clear the front of the net.

But the defenceman’s game is about way more than his ability to rough up opponents.He gets really low on his skates which gives him explosive skating. He can rapidly cover ground to close down the space of opponents. Stick in one hand, he jabs at the puck and uses his other hand to limit opposing movements, and push them down or toward the top of the zone.

Romanov’s mobility allows him to correct most missteps. But he rarely needs to; he’s more often than not in the right spot. The defenceman plays well inside a system and he is always shoulder-checking. He keeps his eyes on both the puck and opponents so that he can best position himself to limit risks. He shows patience, and doesn’t overextend.

A great sense of timing also makes Romanov’s defensive game effective. Away from the puck-carrier, he doesn’t waste energy battling opponents. He counters them only when they become a threat to make a play on the puck. For example, waiting for a point shot before lifting a stick or shoving attackers away from shooting lanes. Great timing also has the benefit of surprising opponents; they don’t have time to adjust to their play.

Defence is the main strength of Romanov — always has been. But his awareness also benefits his play with the puck.

In breakouts, he shows himself more and more willing to hold on to possession, attract opponents, and make passes to teammates inside space. He finds ways around opposing sticks, and supports teammates well when he doesn’t have the puck. He takes what’s available to him; he doesn’t force plays that aren’t there.

Offence is where Romanov’s game has improved the most. He led all other defencemen in points at the World Junior Tournament last year, but still, it was hard to project any kind of offensive impact at the NHL level from what he displayed. He was very trigger-happy, looking off teammates in better positions to blast puck after puck on net. And he also fired from max distance too many times when he had space to improve the location of his shot.

A year later and there have been improvements. It remains likely that Romanov won’t be racking up points at the NHL level, but now his offence is more diverse and effective. He moves a lot more on the blue line, with and without the puck, which forces defenders to adjust and opens up lanes to teammates. Romanov also passes more. He quickly deflects pucks toward teammates, allowing them to shoot on net before the goalie has time to reposition.

When he does shoot, Romanov now skates up when he can. It improves the likelihood of his release going in, and makes it harder for goalies to contain it, which turns into more rebounds. But he still needs to improve his shot selection a bit more. Sometimes he still fires from the blue line with open space in front of him and no teammate support around the net for deflections.

More than each individual aspect of his game, what makes Romanov ready for NHL play is his decision-making. He doesn’t take unnecessary risks and always thinks defence first. He also shows himself capable of filling the demands of other positions on the ice.

When Romanov does join the Habs. It shouldn’t take long for him to earn the trust of the coaching staff. He has no bad habits in his game. If anything, he could benefit from taking a few more risks — that might come with development.

Even if his offence doesn’t fully translate to the NHL, Romanov should still become a top-four defenceman. His defensive play, decision-making and improving puck-moving game should allow him to make a positive impact on the ice, even against NHL top sixes. We might have to wait a bit before we can see the defenceman’s potential materialize on NHL ice, but it should be entirely worth it.