MONTREAL— Let’s just squash the ambiguity once and for all, because it’s abundantly clear there will be skepticism in the Montreal Canadiens’ fan base about Alexander Romanov signing with the team until he actually puts pen to paper and an announcement is made that it’s a fait accompli.
The 2018 second-rounder is going to be in that bleu-blanc-rouge uniform in short order. The only question is: Will it be for whatever remaining games get played in the 2019-20 season, or will his new contract commence once the 2020-21 season gets underway?
“It looks like the GMs are in favour of having some kind of a regular season, and then as many as 24 teams would possibly make the playoffs,” Romanov’s agent, Dan Milstein, told Sportsnet Friday morning. “If I was Montreal, I’d probably be calling Romanov for this year.”
As of right now, the rules wouldn’t allow for the Canadiens to sign Romanov and play him for the remainder of the 2019-20 season. But that could change if and when the season is resumed.
If it does, Milstein doesn’t believe the Canadiens would be concerned about Romanov burning the first year of his entry-level contract.
“He’s not going to get to 40 games and get a year closer to being a UFA (by playing right away). So if they burn a year, it doesn’t mean much.”
“I haven’t discussed it with Montreal, but I will when the time comes,” Milstein added. “It’s just, right now, I’d rather he plays this year. Why sit out and wait until October?
“He’s definitely coming. He’s coming to be an NHL player, and so it’s just a matter of when.”
All that means is that until we know what will become of the remainder of the season, it’s highly unlikely a deal between Romanov and the Canadiens will be formalized.
It’s also not a stretch to believe that, like Milstein, the Canadiens would want Romanov playing for them as soon as possible.
“The team loves him. You know (Canadiens GM) Marc Bergevin told Alex at dinner they have a name for him,” Milstein said. “‘The Destroyer’ is what they called him after the U20s (World Junior Championship).”
The Montreal brass has been high on Romanov dating back to 2017, when Russia-based scout Artem Telepin began vaunting his abilities to Canadiens assistant general manager Trevor Timmins.
The Canadiens’ belief in Romanov picked up tremendous steam in the lead up the 2018 Draft. It was rooted in his steady progression in Russia’s top junior league, reinforced by his performances in the various under-18 tournaments, and outright confirmed at the team’s privately-held European combine.
“He just blew us away with his personality (and) his competitiveness in doing some of the fitness testing,” Timmins said during a 50-minute conference call with Montreal reporters Thursday. “Not only that, but being a team guy cheering on the other draft prospects that took part in our European combine that year—it was really impressive.”
It’s why when the Canadiens saw NHL Central Scouting’s final draft rankings and noticed the 5-foot-11, 185-pound Romanov listed as the 115th-best European prospect (not including goaltenders), they snickered.
So did Milstein.
Romanov, however, wasn’t sure what to make of it.
“You know what he said to me, because I told him he should come to the draft? He said, ‘Well, what if I don’t get drafted?’” recounted Milstein. “I said, ‘I’m going to buy you ticket and you’re going to get on a plane to train and spend some time with me, and we’re going to fly to Dallas for your draft.’ And he says, ‘Well, if I don’t get drafted, at least I can go to buy new sneakers at the mall.’
“All jokes aside, we knew Montreal—their Russian scout was so high on him since September of his draft year that they were all over him and basically saying they’re drafting him 100 per cent.
“Usually it never happens this way. Usually, you don’t know until your name is called up. And during those final interviews, everyone says the same thing—that they’ll draft you if you’re there when they’re called up to the draft—and then they pass on you. But we knew that Montreal was going to draft him no matter what, but it was just a matter of where. When we got to Dallas and had final exit meetings with Columbus and Las Vegas, because I always take my guys and do final meetings with teams that want to meet with them because it always helps, we knew he was going to go early. We just didn’t know how early.”
Timmins said on the day the Canadiens drafted Romanov 38th overall that it was because they were following their draft board and that’s where they had him slotted. He confirmed that with Sportsnet on Friday, and said that, because several other teams had the opportunity to see Romanov play live on the international stage that year, it didn’t surprise him that at least a couple of others were as high on him.
It’s now fair to say everyone is high on Romanov. The 19-year-old Russian is widely considered to be one of the best players currently outside of the NHL.
That perception has largely been founded on what Romanov showed in each of the last two world junior tournaments and, as Timmins pointed out on Thursday, it hasn’t been tainted by Romanov’s KHL club (CSKA Moscow) diminishing his role from last season to this season.
“I think everyone over there was in the know that Alexander was going to come to the NHL the following season, so I don’t think there was an impetus to put… they weren’t going to use him as much as in the past. That’s my personal opinion,” said Timmins. “But we’ve all seen him at the world juniors, so… I wouldn’t put any weight into his ice-time (with CSKA Moscow).”
Milstein would be in the best position to say whether or not Romanov’s Russian team was aware of his player’s intentions for after this season.
“I have to agree with Trevor’s assessment,” he said. “It was clear this year he could have been a top-four on that team.”
Regardless of how anyone feels about that, the Canadiens feel it won’t be too long before Romanov is a top-four defenceman on their team.
For now, as Bergevin told La Presse in this interview at the end of February, the Canadiens see him coming over and starting on their third defensive pairing.
And it’s clear the management’s team excitement about that plan isn’t solely based on the player’s on-ice accolades.
“He’s such an energetic guy,” said Timmins. “He’s always smiling. His personality is a lot like Gally (Brendan Gallagher). He’s always smiling, he’s full of energy, and he’s fun to be around. So we’re hoping for the best for him and rooting for him, and hopefully, he can have a solid career and help our hockey team to get to the next level.”