The good thing about sophomore slumps is you can’t really have one following a season in which you were benched down the stretch. Suffice it to say, expectations are low for Montreal Canadiens defenseman Alexander Romanov, as he enters his second NHL season. They shouldn’t be, at least not as far as the Habs themselves are concerned.
Romanov Returns to Lineup with a Vengeance
It’s more a reflection on head coach Dominique Ducharme’s decision to scratch Romanov throughout the playoffs. Playing just two games up until the Stanley Cup Final (one each against the Winnipeg Jets and Vegas Golden Knights, replacing an injured Jeff Petry), Romanov next played again in Game 4 against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Hopefully as a sign of things to come in 2021-22, Romanov then scored a key goal to put the Canadiens up 2-1 in the third period. The Habs then went on to win 3-2 overtime to keep their slim championship hopes alive. Considering Romanov had just a single goal (five assists) in the regular season, Romanov undeniably failed to live up completely to the hype surrounding him, with one NHL executive having compared him to Drew Doughty.
Nevertheless, Romanov adds a different dimension to the Canadiens’ defense, especially the left side, if that’s indeed where the left-handed shot is played. His relative mobility compared to Ben Chiarot and Joel Edmundson is sorely needed. Ironically though, it’s in a way that mobility that kept Romanov out of the lineup.
Romanov’s Got ‘Happy Feet’
Head coach Dominique Ducharme opted to deflect the question, when asked by the Montreal media why he kept scratching Romanov during the playoffs. Ducharme instead downplayed the roster decision, reaffirming the team’s long-term faith in Romanov, saying that, even though he wasn’t necessarily playing every game, he was still gaining valuable experience.
For his part, assistant coach Luke Richardson, who took over head-coaching duties when Ducharme was in quarantine, answered a question about Romanov at the presser for his contract extension. Richardson actually repeated a phrase that Ducharme’s predecessor, Claude Julien, had used to describe Romanov earlier in the season, so there’s probably some consensus among the coaches.
“I call it ’happy feet’ where he’s crossing over, all over the place, wasting some energy, and moving a little too much laterally where he’s used to the bigger ice [in the Kontinental Hockey League]. By the end of the season though, he started to control that a little bit better,” said Richardson.
Richardson did go on to describe Romanov’s upside moving forward: “He’s such an explosive player that he can get to a guy 10 feet away very quickly and surprise them with a big hit… He shoots the puck well and he’ll block a shot no matter who’s winding up. He’s got the heart of a lion… All that combined together is going to go a long way for his maturity and his growth into next year for the Montreal Canadiens and Romy himself.”
Romanov vs. Chiarot vs. Kulak
So, 2021-22 will be a key year in Romanov’s development. Considering Romanov owns a European Assignment Clause in his contract, giving him the right to go back to the KHL if he’s assigned to the American Hockey League, he’s not really at risk of being demoted. To be fair, considering Romanov did play in 54 of 56 regular-season games, he’s not really at risk of being scratched regularly either (at least not during the season).
However, having played just 45 seconds per game on the power play, directly below prospect Jesse Ylonen on the team (1:18), and 0:51 seconds on the penalty kill (fifth-most among defensemen), Romanov can stand to gain more confidence (and ice time) from the coaching staff. Keep in mind, Chiarot is in the last season of his contract. They need somewhat of a succession plan for him in the top four on the left side. Seeing as fellow-leftie Brett Kulak’s contract is also up and the Habs have arguably shown even less faith in him consistently, that succession plan arguably comprises Romanov. That’s it.
Sure, Mattias Norlinder is a promising prospect on the left side and the Canadiens can use his mobility and offensive IQ on the back end like a return to the Stanley Cup Final. However, he’s unlikely to make the permanent jump to North America from Sweden this coming season. He’s stated the plan is for him to return if he doesn’t make the team out of training camp. That leaves his development out of the Habs’ control.
In contrast, Romanov’s is very much in the Canadiens’ hands, lending credence to the saying that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. They can’t let this opportunity, or Romanov specifically, slip away. Ultimately, it’s in their best interest to place their faith in the 21-year-old by giving him more responsibility. It’s not much that he’s earned it, but rather that he’s earned the opportunity to earn it. The Canadiens owe him more ice time. More importantly, they owe it to themselves. It should go without saying, but the Canadiens have maybe a few games to lose, but everything else to gain by placing their trust in a defenseman projected to slip into the top four next season… if not earlier.
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After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has also written for the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently writes about all things Habs for THW, with it being a career highlight for him to have covered the 2021 Stanley Cup Final as a credentialed member of the press.