We were all confounded when Alexander Romanov’s name was announced over the speakers of the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas on June 23, 2018. It was the second time in as many days that some Montreal Canadiens fans were disappointed by draft decisions.
The perception of the Romanov pick changed when the first KHL game of the season was played. Romanov made the CSKA roster, and while only getting to play sporadically in the beginning, it was evident that Coach Nikitin was slowly introducing the 18-year-old defenceman to the second-best league in the world to aid his development. The Central Command knew what kind of recruit they had in their hands.
Birthplace: Moscow, Russia
Date of birth: January 6, 2000
Drafted: 2018 (38th overall)
Weight: 185 lbs.
Team: CSKA Moscow (KHL)
“The Tsar” showed he could play against men early in the season when he hit Igor Geraskin hard in a game against Severstal, and followed it up with an even bigger hit against Ivan Zakharchuk a few shifts later.
#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
With increased ice time, he started to excel in his defensive game in the KHL. He finished the season with a plus-16 goal differential while playing a sheltered role.
While he didn’t score many points (1G, 3A) he sure made up for it with his physical play and highlight-reel hits. The impressive thing with young defender’s physical play was that he did showcase his hockey sense; he didn’t charge headlong into a play to gain a hit, but chose his timing well and didn’t force his team into a bad situation for his own glory. He even delivered hits when he had the puck under his own control.
His confidence seemed to increase exponentially before the World Junior Championship in Canada.
If the KHL showcased Romanov’s strengths in the defensive end, the World Juniors offered a glimpse at what will become another big part of his play: the transition game. The lower competition level from what he had been up against let him flash some offensive potential, offers the promise of something more. He may have only had one goal, but he finished the tournament with seven assists as Russia captured the bronze medal. He claimed the award as the best defender in the tournament.
The 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 a club that has seen stars such as Valeri Kharlamov, Vladislav Tretiak, Viacheslav Fetisov, Pavel Bure, and Sergei Fedorov don the jersey, just to mention a handful.
Not even the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin could have written the story of Romanov’s first KHL goal any better. It came with Russian ice hockey great Zinetula Bilyaletdinov — Romanov’s grandfather — coaching the opposing team.
All but two panellists had Romanov in their top 10. The community vote and our two member representatives placed him at number eight.
Matt: To be clear, I do believe that Romanov will be a contributor at the NHL level in the years to come. I’m just not sure I see the offensive upside in him that I do in a defenceman like Josh Brook. With just four points in 43 KHL games last year, I’m concerned he won’t be able to bring the offence when he does eventually transition to North America. Of course, it has to be mentioned that he was playing against men as a teenager. When he played against his peers at the WJC, he was a sight to behold, so there’s a fair bit of room for error in my analysis of his play last year.
As far as rearguards go, I have Brook, Victor Mete, Cale Fleury, and Noah Juulsen ahead of him right now. Those four guys, for me, either edge him with their professional experience in North America or the aforementioned offensive upside. Really, he’d be higher on my list if not for how I ended up ranking the very strong group of forwards in the system. I’d just like to see a little more offence from him in the KHL, and I quite look forward to seeing if he can do that this season.
Patrik: I have no doubt that Romanov could fill a role with the Montreal Canadiens this upcoming season, and my ranking reflects that. I don’t see any of the other defensive prospects being able to make such a jump, and not many of the forwards either. His play is secure all over the ice and his hockey IQ lets him read the game exceptionally well, even when it goes at high speed.
I also think there are a few untradable assets in the Montreal prospect pool. Some were mentioned at the trade deadline, and one of those names was young Mr. Romanov’s — something that definitely influenced my ranking.
Top 25 Under 25 History
A surprise selection in the 2018 NHL Draft’s second round, few knew what to think of Romanov in his first few weeks in the organization. As a result he ranked 26th last year, one spot away from making the official Top 25.
History of #9
The development and growth that Romanov experienced last season showcased his hockey sense in many different ways. On the foundation of his defensively secure game he showed flashes off an untapped offensive game without sacrificing anything defensively. This was especially evident when he faced his peers in the World Junior Championship, where he would lead from the back but still showed that he could be an integral part of the offence, too.
Romanov’s decision-making improved with his time in the KHL. At the end of the season it looked like he always knew where the puck was and where his lanes were. He was more aware of the other players on the ice, and it helped him make the right decision in most cases. He is still a junior (and still eligible for the 2020 WJC), and therefore would sometimes make mistakes, but with his grandfather’s help these errors were ironed out over the phone after the game.
The combination of these things shows his hockey sense along with the willingness to learn. That will only help Romanov’s development and have him gain even more experience at an early stage of his career.
What stands out most easily for the casual observer is his physical game. The highlight reel of hits above was just a fraction of the different bodychecks that he delivered. He had impressed himself on his opponents to the point that at the end of the season it was clear that their respect for the little tank had grown. You could see them being more cautious, more aware of where Romanov was on the ice, and in some instances even created more space to get out of his range.
We’ve mentioned physical play a lot, but his game is built on speed. His skating is excellent. He can accelerate with ease, his edgework helps him in all situations, he has strong strides, and his balance on his blades is fantastic. There have been many defenders with less skill in the skating department that have made a career in the NHL. The fact that Romanov is so skilled in this aspect means that his transition into a bigger role with CSKA and, soon, into the Canadiens’ lineup will come naturally and shouldn’t be a problem.
Alexander Romanov with a good defensive play here. He covers the puck well along the boards and turns with the puck into the boards. The American goes to buy a hot dog in the stands. #TheTsar #Habs #GoHabsGO pic.twitter.com/Y6LgMdRhPH— Patrik Bexell (@Zeb_Habs) January 4, 2019
The low offensive totals really stand out, but he has shown in games against his peers that he can deliver in that department. An increased role in CSKA should help his progress here. The fact is that after the World Juniors, his confidence in the offensive department started to shine through.
What I see as a bigger problem is that he uses his stick in situations where he shouldn’t. He has an affinity for getting small cross-checks and other taps in on the attacker, especially in front of the net. It is probably down to the fact that he hasn’t grown into a professional hockey body yet. However, it would be easy for such a thing to linger even after a player has gained a more physical presence on the ice, and Romanov needs to remove that element from his game to ensure he’s not unnecessarily penalized, or suspended.
Romanov will be an NHL player. There is no doubt about it. One can argue his projection, if he is a first- or second-pairing defender, but he will play for the Montreal Canadiens.
The combination of speed and force is what makes Romanov so impressive. He is like a bouncing ball gaining momentum with each hit. Yet he also has an understanding of the game that goes with all the energy.
The way Romanov hits is reminiscent of Niklas Kronwall in his prime, but Romanov comes with better skating — much better skating. It will benefit him as well as the team in many situations, especially with the ever-increasing pace of the game. There was a reason why Montreal investigated the possible ways to get Romanov over to Montreal for the upcoming season, and it wasn’t for him to play in the AHL.
The big question that needs to be answered by Romanov is if he can show the offensive game that he had at the WJC and showed just flashes of in the KHL more regularly at the higher level. That will be what decides how high in the lineup you pencil the Russian. If he can show that he can use his offensive skills on a regular basis, he will be projected to play on the first pairing. However, not all is lost if he doesn’t. In the worst case, he will be a second-pairing defender in the NHL. Romanov’s skating, vision, and shot could all come together to great effect even if he wouldn’t be the main offensive defender on the pair.
Montreal may have lost “The General,” but in the end Marc Bergevin found his own Tsar to lead the team into the future.