The excitement around Alexander Romanov keeps growing. And reasonably so. The defenceman’s KHL game has translated perfectly to the NHL, just like the Canadiens anticipated. The hits, the skating, the point-shots, the defensive awareness, the breakout passing.... He is showing the hockey world the extent of what he can do, what he will routinely accomplish with more seasons under his belt.
The Russian defenceman’s entrance into the NHL deserves the spotlight. It’s rare that prospects manage to play with such confidence in their first few steps in the league. In his shadow, however, is a patient presence who should not be forgotten: an experienced partner turned effective mentor.
Brett Kulak probably didn’t envision starting his season on Romanov’s flank. I am not sure he really knew what to expect from the Russian defenceman, except for what he overheard when Marc Bergevin and Claude Julien giddily discussed the arrival of the prospect, and what he saw during practice in the return to play last year. After his playoff bubble experience, Kulak probably thought he would be back on the left-side of Jeff Petry in 2020-21; the pairing worked well — very well — and the team would have boasted a solid top four with his presence. But a sizable addition in Joel Edmundson and an exceptional training camp from Romanov changed Kulak’s role.
Kulak could have lost his marks and regressed, not unlike what happened at the start of the 2019-20 season. But instead he embraced his situation. Not only is he playing up to the level he showed in the bubble in this start to the season, but he is doing it while actively looking out for Romanov.
Playing with a rookie adds an extra layer of difficulty. Romanov is as plug-and-play as it gets for a prospect, but even if he is drilled and talented, he still comes from a different system, language, and a slower speed of play. Adjustment takes time.
KHL defences play a lot more conservatively than NHL ones. Defenders don’t outnumber and pressure on the walls like they do in the NHL. So Kulak has taken it upon himself to communicate constantly and emphatically with his partner on the ice, both with verbal cues and signs, directing him toward the right check when he senses the rookie drifting back to a neutral, slot positioning — KHL style.
The 27-year-old also points out outlets on the breakout, identifying space and outlets for his partner. Not that Romanov needs those cues — you can see him mostly ignore the pointing of Kulak in the clips — but in a situation where the offensive picture gets blurry, the help of his partner could always prove beneficial. It’s probably why Kulak continues to do it.
Watch Brett Kulak (#77) in the clips below.
Kulak doesn’t just help by communicating. In the pair of games against the Oilers, the defenceman also tried to buy Romanov space by repositioning quickly as an outlet and by creating screens and picks to facilitate breakouts. Kulak skated in front of forecheckers to slow them down, forced them to alter their pursuit, and blocked them outright when possible.
Kulak is not the main reason for Romanov’s success. The rookie is simply playing like he is capable, enabled by a solid partner, with whom he is forming chemistry.
Take a look at this sequence, focusing on the synergy of the defensive pair, the aggressiveness of one counter-balanced by the safeguard of the other.
Kulak pinches on the wall, Romanov steps back to the middle. Romanov pinches on the other wall, Kulak steps back toward the net. The puck springs loose. Kulak goes for it. Romanov skates in support. Kulak uses his partner as a decoy to beat the forecheck.
As fun as that Kulak escape was, there are no exceptional plays in this clip, just your typical defensive responses and breakout solutions. What is remarkable, however, is the effectiveness of the pairing this early on.
You will soon hear arguments that Romanov should be moved up in the lineup, given more ice time and responsibilities. Maybe if things go south for the Canadiens, it could be explored. But to me, it looks like the Habs have found a recipe for success. The rookie’s situation is quite perfect as it is. Kulak seems to be filling the mentor role well, at least on the ice. As a fringe top-four defenceman himself, he possesses the necessary skills to complement all facets of Romanov’s play.