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Alexander Romanov and the search for puck-moving defencemen

Romanov was a surprise selection in the 2018 draft. Does he have what it takes to fill the Habs biggest need on the blue line?

2018 NHL Draft - Portraits Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Entering the draft, the Montreal Canadiens, and especially Trevor Timmins, made it clear what they were looking for: players with high upside, with the potential to feature in the top of the lineup, and, most of all, with the ability to play fast.

The same discourse was repeated multiple times, and it seems to now be somewhat of a philosophy of the organization, at least when it comes to the draft.

The game has constantly been speeding up, and you can’t be left playing catch-up; something the organization has been guilty of in the past. You now need those players who can quickly advance the play, and that all starts from the back end.

So it wasn’t a big surprise when, after landing two forwards in Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Jesse Ylönen, the Habs opted for a defenceman with the 38th overall pick.

The surprise came from who they took: Alexander Romanov from Krasnaya Armiya Moskva in the Russian Junior league. Ranking 184th in our consensus rankings and 115th on Central Scouting’s list for European players, he was projected as a late-round pick.

Was it a reach to select Romanov?

Yes, in the sense that a player who was projected to go much later ended up being selected early in the second round. But the unexpected happens a lot in every draft, so the pick was nothing unusual in that sense.

With Nicolas Beaudin gone, rapidly followed by Rasmus Sandin and Jared McIsaac, it’s likely that the Habs saw their choices of left-handed puck-moving defenceman — a need in their system — depleting rapidly before they made their second selection on Saturday. Likely wanting to add a defenceman of this type in that spot and not feeling comfortable waiting in fear of losing the player, Montreal’s management pulled the trigger on Romanov.

Timmins spent quite some time talking about the new acquisition in his post-draft media recap. Everyone was intrigued to learn more about the defenceman and see what the Habs liked so much about him. Timmins explained that Romanov checked all their boxes and he also compared him to an Alexei Emelin ‘‘with a ton of energy.’’

The Habs’ scouting staff was first impressed by him at the World Junior A Challenge that occurred in December of last year. The defenceman’s ease transitioning to the North American ice was a good sign for them. Romanov did not have any visible issues with the reduced space. On the contrary, he brought his physical game with him overseas and the smaller ice only seemed to enable it further. During the tournament, he was throwing his body around in the defensive zone, catching skaters as they tried to go wide on him and pressuring them on the boards and in front of the net.

Romanov is not at all afraid of physical contact. He isn’t the biggest defender at 5’11”, but he understands the necessity of sealing opposing forwards from the puck and makes it his priority in one-on-one battles. He works hard and will challenge opponents in close quarters to find ways to separate them from possession.

His defensive game is not yet mature, with some notable lapses in coverage and needing to improve his awareness, but what helps him is that he is a great skater, especially in his backward strides and in his ability to jump laterally with cross-overs, showing an impressive mobility and reach in his defence off the rush. He has little problem adjusting his gap to follow even the quickest forwards, and his smooth pivots also make it hard to dump the puck by him and beat him on the retrievals.

At the World Junior A Challenge, Romanov showed that he had a good offensive tool from the point: a slapshot that he fires very quickly, giving the puck a chance to fly through traffic to find the back of the net before it gets blocked.

Even if he can’t be characterized as an offensive defenceman, Romanov also wasn’t limited to his shot in the offensive zone this season. On occasion, he showcased an ability to jump in from the blue line for a back-door pass when he saw the space open up.

Looking at the defining characteristic that the Habs wanted in their prospects — the ability to play quickly — Timmins stressed that Romanov had it, also saying that his new prospect played the game like a professional already.

But I think this is where a distinction has to be made, as a player’s speed of execution isn’t the end-all of puck-moving ability.

It is one thing to be able to play quickly, but another to be able to advance the play in a controlled way. That is the more valuable skill, and something Romanov sometimes struggles with.

He can retrieve the puck in his zone under pressure and safely rim it around or bank it off the boards to one of his wingers, or, in a pressured situation, chip the puck to an area where it can be contested. All that is done before possession is stripped away from him.

He can play fast, but is not always an asset in his team’s transition in doing so. He will dump passes to covered teammates, and more often than not default to his partner to orchestrate the zone exit, indirectly having the opposite effect and slowing down the speed of the overall transitions.

Having skaters who can shake the forecheck, either with misdirection or superior vision and handling ability, to give precise passes to teammates to allow them to accelerate into the open ice adds a lot of fluidity to the breakout. That is more beneficial to a team. It also makes life easier for everyone as you don’t need to continuously battle to get the puck out of the zone.

Romanov, after a puck retrieval, and with time and space to turn his body to face the opposing net, has that ability to beat the forecheck with well-timed moves. He can also occasionally transform into a puck-rusher, hanging opponents on the net in his own end with a tight turn, or go around them to carry the play all through the neutral zone.

It is when he is retrieving the puck against back pressure in his own end, which is a lot more difficult and where good puck-movers shine, that he tends to make sub-optimal choices.

That being said, it is possible that with his skating, especially his agility, Romanov can learn and develop this side of his game, becoming a better passer to complement his ability to rush the puck. That might be what Montreal’s scouting staff is banking on, as he is more advanced in his path to becoming a good puck-mover than other defencemen without the same tools.

While ultimately his role in the NHL will depend on the strides he can make in developing this aspect of his game, with all his qualities considered, Romanov wasn’t a bad option to add to the left-handed defenceman cupboard with what he showed this year. At the time of the pick, there weren’t many solid options for the Habs to take if they were looking at adding a player at this specific position, so they decided to bet on mobility and energy.

But there is always something to be said about taking the best player available versus having a shopping list, the latter of which seems at least partly to be the new approach to the draft for the Habs and can be a bit riskier, passing on other talents to fill a need with the best remaining option.

Timmins revealed that the Habs now use a vertical board as well as a horizontal one to organize the prospects by asset value (probably another word for position) and he also said that the organization wanted to add a left-shot defenceman with the Romanov pick. All things that point to the shopping list approach.

It is also entirely possible that he was the next-best player on the Habs’ ranking when they announced their selection.

Only time will tell which was the best course of action for the second-round pick.

The Russian defender will be a player to watch as he goes through CSKA’s system. With his motor and tendency to play a hard game, he could prove himself to be useful from the start in a depth role in the KHL. On the Canadiens’ side, they will likely have to wait and circle back to him at the end of his two-year contract in the Russian league.