Can Romanov Save the Canadiens?

News recently broke that Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin is working to bring 2018 second-round draft pick Alexander Romanov to the NHL next season. Since Romanov’s playing in the final year of his contract with CSKA Moscow in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), the time for him to choose between staying in his homeland or debuting his North American hockey career is soon arriving.

If he decides to sign a contract with the Canadiens to join them next season, it will be interesting to see how his few years in Russia’s top professional league has prepared him for the NHL. More importantly, would Romanov be able to help improve a fragile Canadiens defensive group?

Canadiens Alexander Romanov Team Russia
VANCOUVER, BC – DECEMBER 28: Alexander Romanov #26 of Russia skates with the puck in Group A hockey action of the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship action against the Czech Republic on December, 28, 2018 at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)

Like Markov, Like Romanov

The last great Russian defenseman that played for the Canadiens during his prime was Andrei Markov. Interestingly enough, this offseason saw Markov make an official request to Canadiens management that he wanted to return to the NHL and sign with the team to play another season. The response was a clear indication to Markov that there was no interest from the team, as management expressed its desire to go in another direction.

With that new direction comes the case of Romanov. Like with most Russian hockey players going into an NHL Draft, there is uncertainty whether or not said player would leave Russia to play in the NHL. Some of them make it to North America but things don’t work out, and they return overseas. Therefore, it appears that Bergevin will do his best to sign Romanov and have him join the Canadiens defence corps.

Still More to Prove

The first glimpse of Romanov that most North American hockey fans would have received was during the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championships in Victoria and Vancouver, British Colombia, Canada. Romanov’s several achievements during the seven games he played included winning Best Defenceman, leading all defencemen in points, and helping Russia win the bronze medal by adding one of his assists.

Having someone be one of the best players in this international tournament usually bodes well for the future. Additionally, he will have two seasons in the KHL under his belt once the year is done. If they do eventually join their NHL squad, that’s one advantage many Russians (and other European) prospects have over North American ones; they would have developed their game, by the age of 20, playing against full-aged professionals.

Perhaps the biggest adjustments European players have to make transitioning to the NHL is the small ice surface. Considering his World Jr. Championship performance, Romanov has already done that beautifully. He even did well at the IIHF U18 World Championship, scoring a goal and three points in five games on a team that placed sixth.

It’s one of the reasons why the Canadiens selected Romanov much earlier compared to where the NHL’s Central Scouting ranked him. The Canadiens felt that whenever he would decide to play in the NHL, he’d be comfortable on smaller ice surfaces. In particular, his quick thinking and reacting on the ice makes it appear as if he’d prefer it.

Playing in Pro Mode

Junior career aside, the best way to judge how much Romanov would be able to help is looking at his KHL career thus far. He already knows what being a champion in a professional feels like, as he was part of the 2018-19 Gangarin Cup (the KHL Stanley Cup equivalent) winning team. However, he was not among the players the coach depended upon often that season, only suiting up for four playoff games in the first round.

He is currently seeing more ice time this season, playing an average of 12:30 per game, more than a full minute more than his first KHL season the year before. Despite playing third-pairing minutes, his coaches have had more confidence in putting him out during crucial moments. Don’t let his point totals fool you either; he is more defensive than offensive.

Still, his mobile defensive abilities are what the Canadiens sorely need. Since the start of this season, they have given up the defensive zone to their opponents too easily and have left poor Carey Price and Keith Kinkaid the task of stopping numerous high-danger scoring chances. Despite employing similarly-typed defencemen such as Ben Chariot, the defence corps lacks truly mobile defencemen beyond Victor Mete and Jeff Petry.

Romanov would be able to assist the Canadiens with his good gap control and his pivot abilities. When opposing players are skating towards him, he maintains proper backward speed and extends the stick well to cover the area between him and his opponent. He also displays an aggressive side to his game, taking opponents off-guard with a big hit. Unlike other left-sided defencemen currently in the lineup, he doesn’t sacrifice his mobility while doing so.

A Little Cautious

The KHL is levels below the NHL in speed and skill. If Romanov is unable to move up CSKA’s depth chart later in the season, it may show that he would not be ready to crack the Canadiens’ top six next year.

The Canadiens will continue being a team that expects to make the playoffs each year, therefore, they have to be absolutely certain that Romanov would be able to help in that goal if they are to deploy him regularly each game. With how early they selected him in the 2018 draft and Bergevin’s efforts to woo him, it seems they believe it to be the case. Canadiens fans can only hope that management’s investment in numerous defencemen in recent drafts pays dividends in the near future.