BROSSARD, Que. — I had to see it to believe it.
Not that I didn’t trust the numbers the Canadiens had provided — the height and weight of each player and all the other relevant statistics sent to media after physical and medical testing was completed at Bell Sports Complex in Brossard Sunday— it’s just that when you read a 20-year-old player has gained an inch in height and 27 pounds, you figure your eyes will offer some sort of confirmation.
After a few days of watching Alexander Romanov (formerly five-foot-11, 181 pounds and now six-foot, 208 pounds) I can’t say with any degree of certainty if the numbers have been inflated, but it doesn’t appear they have been. The kid, who turned 21 on Wednesday, looks as big as the Canadiens say he is.
As for the dramatic weight (muscle) gain, Romanov’s agent, Dan Milstein, told me it’s more likely his stats hadn’t been updated since the 2018 draft combine.
Regardless, that’s a lot of growth over a short period of time.
Romanov also looks about as good as the Canadiens brass has made him out to be. We’ll see if that still proves true when the games begin but, so far, I see a fluid skating stride, a very engaged player who’s anything but out of sorts with all the new things he’s being exposed to, and a player who does just about everything well at both ends.
But don’t just take my word for it. Take Joel Edmundson’s.
“He's good,” said Edmundson of Romanov after Wednesday’s practice. “Smooth skater, good hands and he puts in the work… He's a young kid that's got a lot of skill and he's hungry, so I'm excited to see what he does this season.”
Most everyone in these parts is, and I’m certainly intrigued.
Romanov, who was drafted 38th overall in 2018, came to Montreal all but guaranteed by the coaching staff to already be in possession of a spot on the Canadiens’ blue line — and based purely on the impression he made at a private combine the Canadiens held prior to his draft, dominant performances at two world junior championships, some game footage from two seasons with the KHL’s CSKA Moscow and a few practices in the Toronto bubble this past August.
There appears to be universal confidence within the Canadiens organization that he’s going to step into the lineup and make an immediate impact, and given that we have a fairly limited window to see what all the fuss is about, I’ve been watching him very closely since this 10-day training camp transitioned to the ice on Monday.
With each passing moment, the picture has gotten clearer — from noticing how familiar Romanov immediately seemed with players he had only spent a couple of weeks around in the playoffs to watching him jump right into the power-play rotation on Day 2 to everything we saw and heard on Day 3.
On Day 3, Romanov was the first player to step on the ice ahead of a special teams practice. When the drills began, he was no longer rotating in and out with Victor Mete; he was quarterbacking the second unit on his own.
And after that wrapped, Romanov headed over to the main ice surface for regular practice and assumed his position to the right of Brett Kulak on what’s expected to be Montreal's third defence pairing out of the gate.
An hour later, with everyone filing off the ice, there was Romanov — taking a few extra shots after the extra-shot portion of practice had already ended.
First player on, last player off.
And then the interviews started with Edmundson, and then Tyler Toffoli, and Josh Anderson, and finally head coach Claude Julien.
When Toffoli and Anderson were asked for their impressions of the young defenceman, there was so much congruence between their answers it was as if both of them were regurgitating a discussion they had already had with each other about Romanov.
“He plays at 100 percent every single time,” said Toffoli of Romanov. “Even the little drills — you can see he's going hard, he's finishing his checks and you have to earn every piece of ice with him.”
“He plays games like he does in practice,” said Anderson, who obviously meant that Romanov practises as if there’s as much on the line as there is in games.
Those two answers made me wonder if Romanov was ticking some players off with how hard he was going during these first few skates. I even asked Anderson if someone needed to say something to Romanov to get him to tone it down a bit — with him being a young player unaccustomed to NHL practice culture — but Anderson was all for what he was seeing.
“I think he just has good habits,” Anderson said. “I think that’s what you have to have as a professional hockey player.
“Practices have been pretty high-paced and guys have been going pretty hard, and you can see that. When you see a couple of guys working hard, it follows to the other guys to do the same thing. That’s the advice I would give him is keep going and keep working hard.”
I’m not sure if Julien was watching these exchanges from his office, but the coach offered this up after he was asked if anything stood out about Romanov over the last three days.
“He’s a really dialed-in athlete and everything he does on the ice every day is at 100 per cent, and that’s how he’s been his whole career, his whole life. A guy who just loves the game, comes in and works hard every day. So, I like seeing that.
“There’s players that are really intense that can be reckless, but there’s players that are intense and it’s because it’s just the way they play and what they do out there is calculated. So that’s where I see Romanov’s practice habits and his intensity and all that we’ve seen. I like that, and I’m sure his teammates enjoy it as well.”
It’s the type of stuff you want to hear about any player, but certainly about one who’s come in with high expectations.
It’s obvious that Romanov isn’t taking anything for granted, and that’s the impression he’s made so far.