In a game in which the Montreal Canadiens couldn’t get much of anything going, they ironically may have stumbled upon a key to their success. Defenseman Alexander Romanov may not have stood out one way or another against the Calgary Flames in the Habs’ 2-1 loss on Thursday, but his promotion up the lineup beside Shea Weber still makes the most long-term sense for the organization.
Romanov Makes Debut Beside Weber
True, Romanov was on the ice for both Flames (Josh Leivo) goals. However, the first was a misplay by Habs forward Josh Anderson in the offensive zone that led to an odd-man rush the other way. The second was a direct result of a Shea Weber giveaway deep in the defensive zone. Blaming Romanov for either one would be a misrepresentation of the facts and akin to crediting him with Corey Perry’s tip-in off a Weber point shot later on in the game (for which he was also on the ice).
It works both ways. So, you have two options here. One: Negate any criticism you may want to level his way for failing to put together a first-star performance in his third game in four days playing in unfamiliar territory on the top pairing with unjustified praise. Two: Step back and re-assess the situation, giving him time to adjust.
“As a young guy, when you’re playing with top players, sometimes it can be overwhelming, but I don’t think [Romanov] took it that way,” said Jonathan Drouin to the media after the loss, during which the Habs as a whole were visibly fatigued.
“As a team, we weren’t breaking out well. We weren’t making good plays. It’s not only him. It’s really a team effort tonight where we didn’t really create anything or have our legs or have anything going for us. As games go on, I know Romy will be playing well with [Weber] and they’re going to be a good pairing.”
Chiarot out with Fractured Hand
Ultimately, in spite of Romanov’s failure to impress in his first game beside Weber, the Habs have no real choice but to keep him where he is for the time being. A left-handed defenseman who had been moved to the right by previous head coach Claude Julien (due to Romanov’s ability to do so and the team’s depth on his natural side), Romanov has impressed up to this point, albeit in relatively sheltered third-pairing minutes (starting just 39.6% of his shifts in the defensive zone).
That should be subject to change in the near future for several reasons. Firstly, Weber’s regular partner, Ben Chiarot is out with a fractured hand. Secondly, the only other alternatives would be Joel Edmundson, who has a found a home beside Jeff Petry, and Brett Kulak, who at 27 has far from established himself as anything other than a bottom-four defenseman, playing three full minutes less per game than the 21-year-old Romanov up to now (despite being his most-common partner).
Victor Mete is another theoretical option, as a leftie who served as Weber’s second-most-common partner last season (behind Chiarot). However, in practice, he lacks the trust of the coaching staff to the point that he has dressed in just six games so far. It would be like promoting the intern you have doing busy work right now to vice-president overnight.
Based on Mete’s skill set, he makes sense in a lot of ways that Chiarot didn’t as a second defensive defenseman on that Weber pairing. However, so does Romanov. The difference between the two, other than Mete’s superior speed, is Romanov simply has the trust of Habs management and head coach Dominique Ducharme.
One knock on Mete is his size (5-foot-9, 184 pounds) and how he is relatively easily moved off of pucks. At 6 feet, 208 pounds, Romanov strikes a happy medium between the former and, say, Edmundson (6-foot-4, 227 pounds), who you wouldn’t necessarily want to move away from Petry anyway, not because he hasn’t impressed so far, but why mess with the chemistry of another pairing at this juncture? Especially when Ducharme himself seems to have acknowledged the need for more mobility beside Weber. That’s not Edmundson. If it can’t be Mete, Romanov is your best bet.
“The way we see it, a little bit of movement on the right of Shea, depending on the game, depending on how everything goes, we might see all three guys, depending on time,” said Ducharme ahead of Thursday’s loss.
Romanov’s Spot to Lose
Ducharme may have suggested someone else could take the spot, but let’s be both reasonable and realistic. It should be Romanov’s to lose. There really isn’t anyone else, barring an acquisition on the part of general manager Marc Bergevin (Mattias Ekholm for instance). And, while Romanov is still a rookie and the Habs may not want to rush him, based on who’s in the system right now, he’s the logical one to replace Andrei Markov four years later after he had formed a formidable pairing with Weber and then left the Canadiens.
Romanov’s skill set may not be as complementary to Weber’s as Markov’s was. However, it’s certainly a better fit than what Chiarot has to offer, all due respect to him and his 2019-20 season that to his credit silenced the doubters. The blessing in disguise here, with Chiarot unfortunately having gotten injured, is his 2020-21 season up to now hasn’t been nearly as impressive, with a relative shot attempt percentage of -4.0. While Chiarot does tend to face stiffer competition, last season, playing much the same role, it was -0.2 (on a worse team to boot).
For some comparison, Weber is at -1.5 this season (-0.5 last). In other words, it hasn’t worked this season between them. By switching things up, what do the Canadiens have to lose, really? Especially when they have no other choice but to find Weber another partner. The question heading into this season had been whether Romanov should stay in the NHL. He’s proven he deserves to, with a promotion up the lineup being the next logical step for him to take based on his play to point.
Romanov may not have blown anyone away in Game No. 1 against the Flames. However, if anyone expected a healthy but similarly fatigued Chiarot to do just that in the same position, they haven’t been paying attention. While it’s a shortened season and the Habs can ill afford to spend a few games on a lost cause beside Weber, all indications are Romanov is anything but.
Investing tougher-but-earned ice time in him isn’t just the smart play, it’s the only one the Habs have got. It’s about as much of an issue as deciding whether or not to play Romanov altogether. It just so happens that, with Chiarot out, it’s the only place to logically play him… and chances are good the Habs will end up all the better for it.
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.