MONTREAL — It’s official: “The Destroyer” has agreed to terms on a three-year, entry-level contract with the Montreal Canadiens. Cue his music, roll out the red carpet and prepare the merchandise.
We’re not entirely sure when Alexander Romanov will first step foot on Canadian soil, or when he’ll first grace the ice in a Canadiens uniform, but his KHL deal with CSKA Moscow ran its course on April 30 and his new deal, with the NHL team that drafted him 38th overall in 2018, will commence as soon as possible.
Meaning, if the NHL decides to resume the 2020 season and allows prospects to sign and play immediately, Romanov will burn the first year of his new deal immediately. And if the NHL decides against that, the 20-year-old Muscovite’s contract will begin in the 2020-21 season.
Regardless, the plan — as agent Dan Milstein relayed it on a 20-minute conference call with Canadiens reporters on Friday — is for Romanov to leave Russia as soon as borders reopen.
"He’s coming to Montreal on a one-way ticket," said Millstein.
"I’m ready to play in the AHL, I’m ready to play in the NHL, I’m ready to play in North America," Romanov added — and in reasonably-spoken English.
Place your bet on the NHL.
For as much as the Canadiens want to manage expectations — and they have every reason to do that with a 20-year-old kid who’s never played an NHL game — general manager Marc Bergevin has already gone on record to say that Romanov should immediately be able to fill a role on the team’s bottom pair.
It was in an interview with La Presse back on Feb. 29, Bergevin said, "He’ll be a defenceman who, at 23, 24 years old, will give us 24, 25 minutes against the best opposing lines, the type of defenceman who we’ll put on the ice to protect a lead or play the last 30 seconds of a power play when you know the opposing team is coming with their big line."
"But we have to give him time," Bergevin cautioned before adding, "I’d say a defenceman like him is just as important as one who can give you 60 points."
To say the Canadiens are cautiously optimistic about the player’s abilities would be completely understating it.
It was Millstein who made us aware of Bergevin telling Romanov at a dinner in Moscow that the management team refers to him as “The Destroyer.” And it was Canadiens assistant general manager Trevor Timmins who, on a conference call on April 9, was raving about Romanov’s off-ice attributes.
"He just blew us away with his personality (and) his competitiveness in doing some of the fitness testing," Timmins said about what impressed him at the Canadiens’ European combine in 2018. "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."
What Romanov has done since has been nothing short of impressive. First on the international stage, where he won bronze and silver medals and was named to the all-tournament team at the last two world junior championships, and second as one of the youngest players in the KHL over the last two seasons.
We know the five-foot-11, 185-pounder’s numbers — Romanov scored just one goal and added 10 assists over 86 games with CSKA Moscow — certainly don’t jump off the page.
But this comment from an Eastern Conference executive we spoke to on Friday certainly will:
"He’s more of a Drew Doughty type. At the world juniors, a lot of the GMs and AGMs were comparing him to… they said he plays the way Drew Doughty plays," the executive said. "To hit the nail on the head, the comparison with Doughty is to say Romanov wants to take command of the game. He wants to be involved in every facet of the game, and he can be with his skating ability."
When we suggested Romanov has been compared by some to former Canadiens defenceman Alexei Emelin in that he doesn’t shy away from the physical game, that comparison was quickly dismissed.
"He’s much better than Emelin," said the executive. "Way better skater, much better gap control. His gap control is his best asset, and he has way more offence than people realize."
When we interjected — saying we don’t have much evidence of that outside of the world juniors, where Romanov amassed two goals and 14 points in 14 games over the last two tournaments — the executive doubled down on his assertion.
"I think he’s got way more offence to offer than what you see reflected in his KHL numbers," the executive said. "You release him and let him be involved, and I think he’s really going to surprise. I can’t say for sure, because we haven’t seen it in the KHL, but we saw it at the world juniors.
"At the world juniors, he was always involved in the offence because he makes his pass — and it doesn’t matter if it’s a first pass or a transition pass out of his own zone or neutral zone — as soon as he makes that pass, he’s up in the play right away supporting the offence all the time. He’s always moving his feet, he’s always up in the play, and he makes plays."
It won’t be long before we see Romanov making them with the Canadiens.
When the kid was asked on the call what made him decide to leave the KHL at this stage, he responded, "Because it’s my dream to play in the NHL, it’s my dream to play in Montreal."
There’s no turning back now and, in an ideal world, Romanov would realize his dream as early as this summer, should the NHL resume its current season and allow for it.
But, as he put it, he’ll wait if he has to.
"I’ll be waiting, I’ll be training so hard," said Romanov. "I just want to play my first game and play in the NHL. I will be training so hard, and I will wait."