Since Andrei Markov’s departure from the Montreal Canadiens in 2017, there has been a hole on the defensive left side that management has had a hard time filling. There is no one on the roster who can compare to Markov’s two-way style, until maybe now. The Canadiens have a new Russian player who has the potential to become the next Markov: Alexander Romanov.
You may be thinking it’s a little too early to compare Romanov to Markov, and you’re probably right. However, Romanov is potentially the closest defenseman the Canadiens have to their former All-Star. The keyword here is potentially. Romanov hasn’t played a game yet, but will be practicing with the club during Phase 4 of the Return to Play plan.
Markov was drafted by the Canadiens in the sixth round, 162nd overall, in 1998 as a 20-year-old. He played two seasons with Dynamo Moscow and was considered one of the best defensemen in Russia. He was an offensive force with great puck-moving skills, which the Canadiens sorely needed to complement Patrice Brisebois, who was the team’s only offensive-minded defenseman at the time.
He joined the Canadiens in the 2000-01 season at the age of 23, playing in 63 games and scoring 23 points. He had a brief stint with their AHL team, but quickly got his defensive style corrected and went on to become arguably the best all-around defenseman on the team.
The List of Failed Replacements
Montreal had a long list of left-handed defensemen trying to replace Markov since he wasn’t re-signed in 2017. Karl Alzner, Dave Schlemko, and Jordie Benn were the front runners, with Alzner being the big free agent signing.
Another group of long shots were also brought in: Mark Streit, Eric Gelinas, Joe Morrow, Brendon Davidson, and Jakub Jerabek. None of these players even came close to filling the gap, most of the second group didn’t even last more than a season with the team. Benn and Schlemko had moderate success as bottom-pairing guys and Alzner was a huge disappointment. If you’re keeping score, only Alzner is still with the club, and he technically is only there due to the expanded roster size.
Between 2017 and 2019 the Canadiens used eight different defensemen in an attempt to fill Markov’s skates. This doesn’t include the group that is with the team now.
The New Crop
The Canadiens now have a good, young crop of left-handed defensemen, so far led by Ben Chiarot, a free agent signed in the offseason who played well above expectations this season. They also have Brett Kulak, acquired from the Calgary Flames, and young Victor Mete, who quickly became a fan-favorite for his speed and work ethic.
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Although these three defensemen have found moderate success, none produce the way Markov did. Chiarot is a good defensive player, but is only marginally good in the offensive zone. Kulak has moderate but inconsistent success at both ends of the ice. His biggest issue is his decision making, which can cause him to make glaring mistakes. Mete has the speed and puck-moving skills that allow him to clear the zone, but lacks the size and shot to be very effective at either end of the ice.
All three have great qualities to their game, but none are the complete package that Markov was. Although Chiarot and Mete have both played top-pair minutes, neither are bona fide top-pair defensemen. Chiarot is at best a second-pairing defenseman and Mete third-pairing.
“The Tsar” Alexander Romanov
Romanov was the Canadiens’ third pick, 38th overall, in the 2018 NHL Draft in Dallas. He was a complete surprise considering he was ranked to go 150th or higher, but the Canadiens’ management scouted him heavily and took a chance on him. He dominated in his two years playing in the World Junior Championship (WJC), scoring 14 points in 14 games and winning silver and bronze medals.
As an 18-year-old, he joined the KHL playing for contender CSKA Moskva, also known as CSKA Moscow. In two seasons, he played 86 games scoring 1 goal and amassing 11 points. The team won one Gagarin Cup Championship during Romanov’s tenure. Those numbers don’t jump out at you, but as a young player in the Russian pro league, he only averaged a little over 12 minutes. Last season, when the team learned he wasn’t returning, his minutes dropped even further to only four minutes a game.
“A steady, stay-at-home type, who is also capable of driving play at the other end of the ice. I like what I saw. He’s not a player that’s going to run huge numbers, but he’s a player that’s going to close his gap, good first pass.”Marc Bergevin on Alexander Romanov – Sportsnet
Management is so high on Romanov, that they decided to burn a year of his entry-level contract just so he can practice with the team during Phase 4 of the Return to Play plan, even though he is ineligible to play in the games.
Will the Tsar Be the Next General?
It seemed that overnight Romanov became a type of hero in Montreal. The entire buzz was about this young rookie and whether or not he could get the job done at the NHL level or would he fail miserably. Could Romanov be the guy to replace Markov? It is still too early really to say much of anything, Romanov hasn’t even played a game in the NHL and Markov is a Habs’ legend. Having said that, Markov also had to start at some point and Romanov’s career could be very similar to number 79.
There is a lot of hype around Romanov for obvious reasons, and this article will only throw fuel on that fire. He will be a top-four defender for years to come, that is not the question. But will he be the next Markov? Will anyone be the next Markov?
The simple answer is no, Romanov will be the next Romanov. He will create his own path and career. Offensively speaking, it is unlikely he will match Markov, but defensively he can be just as good, maybe better, as time goes on. Have no fear, though, Habs fans, Romanov will be what he is advertised to be and will only help improve the left side of the defense and the team as a whole.
Trege Wilson lives in Nova Scotia and is a member of the RCN. He is a life long Habs fan and is creator and co-host of the popular Canadiens podcast Habs Unfiltered.