The date was May 8, 2020. The Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin had just announced that the team’s 2018 second-round pick, 38th overall, had been signed to a three-year, entry-level deal. The plan was to get the Russian blueliner to North America as soon as possible, with hopes of playing him a couple of weeks later in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Here was Alexander Romanov with one of his first quotes prior to signing his NHL contract:
“It’s my dream to play in the NHL. It’s my dream to play in Montreal. It’s my favorite dream, I’m so excited. I’m so happy to come to Montreal and to come to Canada. I’m so happy.”Alexander Romanov in an interview with NHL.com
The young man’s energy and will to play hockey was evident from Day 1, as the dynamic, physical defenseman was often the first to hop on the ice, and the last one off at practice. He worked harder than anyone in training, which impressed his teammates and coaches from the get-go. Bergevin even burned a year of his entry-level contract to have him practice with the team in the 2020 bubble and get acclimated to both the NHL’s level of play and the Canadiens’ system.
A Review of His Days in Russia
When Romanov joined the Habs initially, he had just come off a season with CSKA Moscow of the KHL (Kontinental Hockey League), a team and league known for its reticence to allocate quality ice-time to young players with career hopes in the NHL, or abroad in general. As a result, from 2018 to 2020, Romanov averaged only 12 minutes of ice-time a night during the KHL season, and under seven minutes in the playoffs. This wasn’t for lack of talent, as the Russian blueliner was arguably their second-best defender after Nikita Nesterov at the time.
Romanov then signed his contract and practiced with the NHL club, and Bergevin’s evaluation of the player was that he would be playing in the 2020 bubble if not for NHL rules keeping him out of the lineup.
Yet here we are, over a year later, and Romanov has only played two games in the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs, in which the Canadiens are currently in a long, arduous run for the most prestigious award in hockey. He sits on the sidelines, as he often did in Moscow, waiting for an injury or for someone to have a terrible game in order to maybe, perhaps, get a shot at playing in the lineup for three or four minutes a period, if he is so fortunate. This is not the only parallel that can be drawn between the Canadiens’ usage of Romanov and Moscow’s.
Lack of “Tough Minutes”
Romanov’s style of play favors risk-taking and aggressiveness in the neutral zone and on breakouts, which leads him to work better when the play amps up and execution speed becomes key. In order to maintain that type of game and carry it into the top-four defense units, Romanov must play against top competition and learn how to take risks that work often against top-six forwards. His ability to send out stretch passes through all three lines and find teammates in-stride would be exacerbated when playing with quicker, smarter forwards who excel in transition, like Josh Anderson, Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield.
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Instead, Romanov was often glued to Brett Kulak’s hip, barely saw any time with the top-six forwards on the team, and was kicked off the second power-play unit in favor of trade deadline acquisition Erik Gustafsson, despite playing quite well on the man-advantage. Same as with CSKA, Romanov simply cannot earn his way into top-four minutes with the Canadiens at the moment.
Giving a young defenseman sheltered competition paired with a lack of ice-time and multiple scratches is a perfect recipe for creating a depth defender who cannot play against top lines and units.
No Pressure Situations to Learn From
Not only does Romanov barely play, he plays even less when the pressure mounts — when the Canadiens needed to defend a lead, when they needed a goal, or any time the clock was running out in the third period, Romanov could often be seen at the end of the Canadiens’ bench (when he played, that is), watching the play intently and trying his best to learn something from that position. It was the same as he did for two years in Moscow — albeit due to politics instead of a lack of trust in the young blueliner’s abilities. He was also frequently glued to the bench after one or two glaring mistakes instead of hopping right back out there and learning to make fewer of them.
For a player who works as hard as Romanov does both on and off the ice, for a player who will literally spend hours beyond the end of training sessions working on his game to then be scratched when it matters the most, the message sent to the team, especially to the young players on the team, is clear: hard work and dedication are not immediately rewarded. Do not, under any circumstances, take risks. You will be benched at the slightest glimpse of a misstep or a failed risk.
Romanov must be exhausted, changing continents and joining a team that, a year ago, seemed 100% sold on his product as a dynamic and physical defender with a proactive but risky mindset, only to go through the exact same issues he faced in Moscow in previous years:
“When guys step on the ice and the rink full of fans, oh my god, tears on the eyes,” he said, that smile still radiating. “When I sit in the rink and just look at this, that’s hard.”Alexander Romanov in an interview for The Athletic (from Canadiens playoff notebook: Alexander Romanov’s fire, imbalance on D, Tyler Toffoli’s dad on his son’s biggest goal, The Athletic, 10-06-21)
It is very possible that the Canadiens get desperate after recently going down 2-0 in the Stanley Cup Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning, and end up throwing him in just for change’s sake. Whatever ends up happening this year, Romanov must play with Jeff Petry or Shea Weber next season, with at least 20 minutes of ice-time per game, if the Canadiens are serious about trying to develop the young blueliner to the fullest extent. He will learn much more quickly and adapt to his role much better with teammates that have a high level of awareness and offensive prowess.
If he does not learn to play in pressure situations, nor learn to play against top lines, Romanov might end up fizzling out as a prospect and become a perpetual depth defender, such as Victor Mete did for the Canadiens prior to being waived and picked up by the Ottawa Senators, who were quick to allocate him the ice-time that his play warranted, turning him into twice the defender that he was with the Habs.
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Lebanese-Canadian hockey writer/Scout. I follow the draft very closely, working with both The Hockey Writers and DobberProspects to provide draft coverage and continue furthering my knowledge of hockey.