Trying to bring up a young player at the NHL level can be a challenge. It’s even more true when it comes to defensemen who, for the most part, tend to reach their peak a bit later than forwards. In spite of being selected 2nd overall at the 2009 NHL Draft, Victor Hedman wasn’t a Norris Trophy caliber defenseman immediately entering the league. In fact, it’s not until his fifth season that he started proving the Tampa Bay Lightning’s right for selecting him that high in the Draft.
The league is filled with such examples and the Montreal Canadiens have one defenseman taking a similar path. Trevor Timmins shocked the hockey world when he called the name of Alexander Romanov with the Canadiens’ 38th overall pick in the second round of the 2018 Draft. He was ranked much, much lower on most teams and “experts” lists. It didn’t take long for him to show why he was selected at that spot when he got to face players his own age at the World Junior Championships. Many fans and media were then filled with hype, as they too often do. The expectation went through the roof.
Slow and steady
When GM Marc Bergevin announced that Romanov had signed with Montreal and was leaving the KHL to join the Canadiens in the bubble for the 2020 tournament-style playoffs, many were questioning why he would burn out one year of the young man’s Entry-Level Contract. Bergevin simply wanted to ensure that the defenseman wouldn’t be tempted to accept another offer from the KHL to stay there longer. While he wasn’t allowed to play per league rules, Romanov got to meet his new teammates and practice with them while getting familiar with the NHL-size rinks and the pace of play.
In what was his first season in the league last year, he had his ups and downs. Romanov is a bag of dynamite. He has so much energy out there and loves to play so much, that he sometimes can’t control that enthusiasm and tries to do too much, getting caught out of position from time to time. To the point where the coaching staff felt like he was more of a liability than an asset in the playoffs, in which he only participated in four of the Canadiens’ 22 games. Still, the experience that he gained with his team making it all the way to the Stanley Cup finals, led by none other than Shea Weber, was extremely valuable for the young Russian.
Difficult season for everyone
This year has been more difficult for everyone. It’s been an off-season to forget for Bergevin and the Habs, filled with drama, twists and turns, and the first 14 games have been extremely disappointing for everyone. After their overtime loss to the Los Angeles Kings last night, the Habs sit 31st in the NHL’s overall standings, with only the Arizona Coyotes struggling more than them.
Romanov averaged just over 18 minutes of play in October and in spite of that, was a healthy scratch on November 1st for the Canadiens’ 3-0 shutout win against the Detroit Red Wings. Coach Dominique Ducharme explained that it wasn’t a punishment for Romanov, but that it was part of the learning progression for his young defenseman. The play is much slower from the press box than it is on the ice and a young player can see what others do right (or wrong) from up there. He can then come back to practice and apply what he’s learned, and apply it in games situations. Ducharme had him back in the line up the next game.
Last night against the Kings, Romanov was the best defenseman on the Canadiens not named Ben Chiarot. As a matter of fact, not looking at stats (particularly not analytics), Romy is one of the team’s few bright spots out there. On a team with a very weak defense, he and Chiarot are the Habs’ most consistent defensemen in my humble opinion. Oh they’re both far from being perfect! But if you compare to the others out there, you’ll have to admit that what I’m saying is true.
Romanov has excellent work ethics. He has a great attitude and is eager to improve. With his skills set, he will continue to improve. No, he doesn’t need to go down to the AHL as some suggested. For one, the Canadiens don’t have anyone to take his minutes. But mostly, he is learning as he goes. Don’t be surprised if he’s on the top pairing before the end of the season. With Chiarot scheduled to become a UFA, combined with the fact that the Habs won’t be in the playoffs, his spot could be available by trade deadline and Romanov should be ready by then to accept the challenge.