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Alexander Romanov: assessing "The Assassin's" potential

Special contributor Marc Dumont examines the process that brought Alexander Romanov from underrated prospect to a potential Top 4 NHL blue-liner

by Marc Dumont, special contributor @MarcPDumont / canadiens.com

MONTREAL -- When the Canadiens called Alexander Romanov's name 38th overall in the 2018 Draft, there's no denying the eyebrow-raising ceremony that took place among fans and pundits alike.

The term "reach" was brandished with reckless abandon, though it's certainly understandable why many thought the Canadiens made their move for the skilled defenseman too early. 

The pre-Draft rankings varied wildly, with the earliest projections available to the public listing Romanov as a possible fourth-round selection. The vast majority, however, estimated Romanov would only hear his name called much later in the Draft, anywhere from the fifth to the seventh round.

Heading into Draft day, Romanov was ranked No. 115 among European skaters by NHL Central Scouting. 

Some rankings went as far as ignoring Romanov completely.

And while there's certainly ample room for projection errors when it comes to the Draft, in reality, there was absolutely no way Romanov was going to slip out of the second round. 

According to multiple sources, several teams were eyeing Romanov as an early second-round Draft choice, but only one club took extra steps to secure his services and ensure he was worthy of an early selection: the Canadiens. 

Due to his low ranking, Romanov was not invited to the NHL's workout combine. The Canadiens rectified this issue by inviting him to their European combine, which took place in Stockholm, and resulted in all three of the Canadiens' second-round draft picks hailing from European clubs. 

The Canadiens also conducted an in-depth interview prior to the Draft in Dallas, which lasted well over an hour.

Video: Alexander Romanov on being selected 38th by the Habs

Simply put, while many teams coveted Romanov, the Canadiens took the extra steps necessary to secure his rights.

"Montreal stepped up," said TSN Director of Scouting, Craig Button. "He was going. Other teams were ready to take him." 

Given his KHL contract with CSKA, the decisions regarding his development path were somewhat restricted from a Canadiens point of view, but the experience he gained playing against men at such a young age is seen as invaluable among those who had a chance to keep a close eye on the Russian defender. 

"I saw more patience develop in his play over time," said KHL analyst Gillian Kemmerer. "I've always believed that he analyzes forwards with an intelligence beyond his playing years."

Tweet from @gilliankemmerer: Alexander Romanov! 👑 #GoHabsGo H/T vithockey (IG) pic.twitter.com/uiwJlNg25n

His intelligence, a trait that's quick to come up any time you're discussing Romanov's skill set, is impossible to ignore.

It's what drives his ability to quickly adapt to any given situation while maintaining an aggressive disposition on the ice, something he does without forfeiting his crucial defensive responsibilities. 

It's also what helped him perform at such a high level throughout both his World Junior Championship appearances.

Statistically speaking, Romanov's performance was the epitome of dominance when he was playing against players of a similar age group.

Consider this: with 14 points in 14 World Juniors games, Romanov ranks 21st all-time among defensemen in scoring in the tournament. He is second all-time among Russian blue-liners, trailing none other than Hall-of-Famer Viacheslav Fetisov, who earned 15 points in 14 games. 

His elite performance earned him a place on both WJC All-Star teams, as well as Best Defenseman honors in 2019. 

But there are always going to be question marks surrounding prospects, even those who defy the odds as they prepare to make their way to the best hockey league on earth. 

Accolades are great, but are rarely mentioned beyond sports trivia if the player in question does not make it to the NHL. 

Which leads us to the ultimate question: can Romanov's skill set translate to the NHL? 

"I think he's going to be a really strong, solid Top 4 defenseman that can play a lot of minutes," said Button. "And we can talk about offense in different ways. Where Alexander is going to be really good is that he's going to be able to get the puck from the defensive zone, with control, moving forward out of it. And because he's so smart, he'll keep pucks alive in the offensive zone, which will create more offensive opportunities."

Tweet from @IgorEronko: Russia U20 head coach Valeri Bragin says he thinks that Alexander Romanov is absolutely ready for the NHL. He wanted him to be a bit more creative at the World Juniors and he knows Romanov is capable but the role Alex has in CSKA couldn't help in that #GoHabsGo

There are no guarantees in life, even less so in sports, but the sentiment that Romanov is well-suited to North American play is one that is echoed throughout the KHL landscape.

His intelligence is not just paired with high-level skill, but also with an innate intensity that pushes him into the heart of the action whenever the opportunity arises.

"While many Russian prospects seem better able to cope with the NHL in their mid-20s, Romanov is an exception," said Kemmerer. "He's been playing with North American style from day one, and he is well-suited to Montreal."

Tweet from @CanadiensMTL: 𝙱𝚒𝚎𝚗𝚝��𝚝...𝙲𝚘𝚖𝚒𝚗𝚐 𝚜𝚘𝚘𝚗... pic.twitter.com/4ztZMe4hhG

Romanov uses a proactive approach to defending, which explains why some in the hockey world have dubbed him "The Assassin." As one scout explained, Romanov is the player who shows up to kill any offensive opportunities his opponents create. He also performs this task with a surprisingly high level of consistency, which is usually a weak point for younger D-men.

"Romanov has confidence," said Button. "And that extends to both ends of the ice. But he doesn't create any type of vulnerabilities for himself or his team when he's on the ice. His gap control is fantastic."

Tweet from @CanadiensMTL: "I'd be surprised if he didn't start the season with us." Coach discusses his expectations for Alexander Romanov for next season.#GoHabsGo pic.twitter.com/7JbWi6lIeg

It still remains to be seen whether Romanov will develop into a Top 4 defenseman. The Canadiens will give him an opportunity to earn a roster spot at training camp, but Romanov's place on the team is anything but guaranteed. 

"When he's under pressure, he makes plays," said Button. "And that's a reality in the NHL. You're going to have to make plays under pressure. He competes for the puck and he battles harder than most."

His path may bring him to Laval, or maybe even the press box as he acclimatizes to his new surroundings, but one thing is abundantly clear: Romanov possesses the type of strength, hockey IQ, and skill that could potentially lead to very good things in the NHL.

If that's the case, unlike his Draft selection two years ago, it certainly won't come as a surprise.

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