Alexander Romanov entered the season with a lot of hype — not least from this writer — but the transition to a bigger role in a better league took some time to get used to. It will continue to be an adjustment as he progresses in his NHL career under Dominique Ducharme and Luke Richardson. The question is what kind of player Montreal will look to create: the high-event player who was part of two strong Russian teams in the World Junior Championships, or the ruler of the defensive zone we saw in the KHL with CSKA?
It does seem that the Canadiens are looking to the first option. However, with that aim comes mistakes. Can the coaching staff learn to live with them, or will he need to sit in the stands a few times this season as well?
Many fans and writers questioned CSKA’s usage of Romanov, but his point-per-game numbers are similar in both seasons with the Russian team as the first year with the Canadiens, and that despite being used on the power play in the NHL. It reamins to be seen what role he settles into, especially considering the mountain-sized hole that Shea Weber leaves on the blue line.
With no votes outside the top six (which became the top five), from the panel and the community as a whole, it is clear that ‘Sascha’ is deemed a part of the Canadiens’ future.
After having made his debut just outside the Top 25 in 2018, Romanov’s stock has risen with a bang. He rose to number nine a year later, and was at number four last year. He now takes another step for his first podium due to the late departure of Jesperi Kotkaniemi who originally held this spot (nearly unanimous at number 3). However, it would require some phenomenal development to continue the upward trajectory for next seasons’s list.
History of #3
All of his profiles in the Top 25 Under 25 have started off by praising his footwork and the technical skills he displays with his skates. His edgework, his stride, and especially his backward speed are top notch.
He is a physical athlete too, and pairing his skating with a low centre of gravity and a strong core makes for a veritable wrecking ball. There have been instances in the KHL when he destroyed opponents. His open-ice hits are old school, and very clean. He hits in a similar way to Niklas Kronwall when he steps up at the blue line but he never really lifts his arms.
In the playoffs he made a great open-ice hit on Alex Pietrangelo.
Alexander Romanov with the beautiful open ice hit on Pietrangelo pic.twitter.com/vbjmf9OaWb— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) June 15, 2021
While the hits are his flashy highlight-reel introduction, it is all the small things that Romanov does that are his bread and butter. He reads the game well, even with limited experience on the small surface in the NHL. Coaches speak about hockey IQ, and Romanov’s is high. He uses the technical edgework to position himself correctly, and he can rectify a bad position quickly thanks to his speed and skill.
Gillian Kemmerer conducted an interview with Vasily Podkolzin in which the Russian forward lauded Romanov’s leadership qualities as something to measure himself against. This is a rarely spoken strength with the defencemen outside of the reports of him being first on the ice and last to leave, and that should be something that will benefit Montreal both on and off the ice.
In some ways the weaknesses are out of his control at the moment, because it relates to his usage. While he was always the sound, secure defender in the KHL, he was the flashy puck-mover and power-play quarterback for Russia in the WJC. Which player is he really, and can you mould him into that player in the NHL, or should that be done elsewhere? Romanov’s skills seem best suited to high-event hockey in the NHL, and that is how he played in his rookie year, though not at an efficient level.
I was kind of expecting Romanov to be a low-event guy but from the stats and eye test he's been a very risk-taking aggressive player. Pretty sure he's their most active transition guy and the defensive numbers aren't very good. #GoHabsGo https://t.co/GIluaVXqxB pic.twitter.com/LnZhVbs0rA— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) April 22, 2021
The KHL assignment clause in his contract makes for a difficult situation as he wants to play in North America, but the NHL isn’t a development league. Sitting him every few games means less time to adjust to the game and the skills of the opposing players. Should he be used more defensively and his offence built up more slowly? That is for the management to decide, but if you give a player free rein, you need to not punish him when mistakes are made.
Some of the discipline issues, the cross-checks and the other agitator moves that were a bit too frequent in the KHL, have been less prominent in the NHL. That is a good adjustment he’s made in the past year, because he is skilled enough to not need those plays.
Last year I wondered where the offensive flash he showed in the World Juniors would show up when he arrived in the NHL, and this question still remains to be answered. He has taken a step up in the league, and he played well in his freshman year, even if the points were lacking and there’s some learning left to do on defence.
Marc Bergevin got a power-play specialist, Erik Gustafsson, at the deadline to run the power play, and that option is now gone. With the looks that Romanov got on the power play last season, that is his role to take (unless another Swede steals it right from under Romanov’s nose). That should increase his offensive production.
The other way is to let him play his KHL brand of hockey: a safe, secure defensive role he is used to and build from there.
There is no doubt that he is part of the future of the Montreal Canadiens. Bergevin wanted the defender close in order to not have him stay in the KHL for a longer time. Over the next year or two, we will find out what kind of blue-liner he will be in the NHL.
Hear Matt Drake and Patrik Bexell discuss Alexander Romanov and his development.