Last year Alexander Romanov answered every question asked by his coaching staff and Montreal Canadiens fans. This year he answered a few more. The Russian defender went over to Montreal during the summer, and while he couldn’t participate with the team in development camp it was a statement in what was to come, as he signed with the Canadiens at the conclusion of the KHL season.
Having been voted the best defenceman of the World Junior Championship in 2019, Romanov was one of the leaders for Team Russia’s this year as well. He lost out on the title of best defender of the tournament to an attacking Rasmus Sandin, but got into the WJC All-Star Team for the second year running.
Romanov finished the tournament with a slight injury that kept him out of the CSKA roster upon his return to Russia, but he did earn a call-up to the Russian National Team for the Sweden Hockey Games in Stockholm, something that speaks volumes about the development of the Russian defender, even if it was a development team that Russia iced.
One thing that did stand out this season was that his time on ice didn’t change much compared to the previous season. Despite a 13% increase, he was still used erratically by coach Igor Nikitin, kept to just under 13 minutes a game.
He was used as a seventh defender most of the time, even if he played better than some of his more experienced teammates. At the end of the season when CSKA rested players for the playoffs, he got a chance to play higher up the lineup and performed well.
The games where it was evident that he was being held back were the ones I personally would have liked to see more of him: games against the KHL’s top teams such as SKA Saint Petersburg, Bars Kazan, and Barys Astana. Those were games in which it would have been easier to compare Romanov’s level and progress from season to season.
While he more than doubled his assists in the KHL this season, the goals were missing. In regard to his development, the focus shouldn’t be on his numbers but rather his overall play, and that has progressed nicely.
In the defensive zone he is more secure and plays smarter. He has also taken a more responsible role when the team controls the puck in the attacking zone, almost playing more like a libero (as in soccer) while letting his partner run the offence. When Romanov does get involved he is more creative, not just using his big slapshot but putting the puck to the net for a redirection, or placing the puck for a more difficult save and having someone jump on a possible rebound. The big hits that he delivered last season weren’t a prevalent, but more thought through and not as impulsive.
He has become a more polished defender in every aspect. This shouldn’t be surprising as that is the way Coach Nikitin develops players: prove you can master your responsibilities before you ask for new ones.
It is no surprise that a Russian player can skate, but Romanov is in the top percentile even among his fellow countrymen. He can change direction quickly, even when going backward. His acceleration benefits him in the race to the corners or when he needs to cover for a wayward partner, or, as in the gif below, when he forces attackers into mistakes. He was constantly one of the top five skaters on CSKA in terms of top speed during the games this season.
Here is a good defensive play from Alexander Romanov; he tries to take away the passing lane, stays on his feet (instead of going down), blocks the shot. Then he gets up real fast and gets the puck out of the zone by working hard along the boards. #Habs pic.twitter.com/eExnr10Nfj— Patrik Bexell (@Zeb_Habs) September 19, 2019
He already thinks hockey at a high level and a high speed. The adjustments he has made in his game to this season showcase a natural ability to adjust and improve to become a more complete hockey player, and a player that puts the team over individual glory.
It is easy to focus on his offensive numbers and wonder if he can play higher up on the roster in the NHL. However, one has to realize that he got next to no time on the power play, so every point he got this season was earned the hard way. One also has to consider the fact that when CSKA did cross into the attacking zone Romanov was more often than not told to change and get a more experienced player onto the ice. This brings his totals down by some margin.
This shouldn’t bother any Canadiens fans, because for every attacking defender you want you will need a secure, stable defensive-minded player to back him up. Romanov has shown against his peers that he can do both, in two different World Junior Championships. CSKA’s system, which placed Romanov far down the order, didn’t give him much chance to improve those numbers. While he shouldn’t be considered the next Erik Karlsson, it wouldn’t be surprising to see his point totals increase with more ice time and more responsibility in different situations and special teams.
By no fault of his own, Romanov’s grade falls from last season, but it is more due to the lack of opportunities to shine than a failure to perform. Even if Coach Nikitin, CSKA, and the KHL in general work very traditionally and a young defender gets the short end of the deal (especially when the writing is on the wall that he will leave at the end of the season), Romanov didn’t manage to force himself into the conversation more. A lot of that was out of his hands, but it still impacts his grade in a negative way.
One thing that influences his grade positively is how he handled the situation that arose in Moscow. Never a bad word, never any problems, and he always put the team first. The character that Alexander Romanov showed this season is second to none. He has also become more of a complete player, and that aded maturity means that the grade is still high. He led his WJC team to a silver medal, got the chance to play with the Russian National Team, and battled through a tough season with CSKA.
There is no doubt that he will be an NHL player, the question is if Montreal will use him in a similar way as CSKA — defence first — or give him a chance to play a more offensive style of hockey.
While he was an unknown Russian on draft day in 2018, Romanov is now an integral part of the Canadiens’ future, and he leaves Europe with top marks from both his seasons in the KHL.
Alexander Romanov (from Sweden Hockey Games):
Instant reaction: KHL expert Gillian Kemmerer discusses Romanov’s three-year entry-level contract with Montreal Canadiens.