MONTREAL — “Nuclear bomb go off, and he’s laughing,” deadpans Bogdan Kiselevich in the exact accent and with the precise cadence you expect from a 30-year-old who hails from Cherepovets, Russia.
With this one-liner, Kiselevich, a left-handed defenceman who spent 32 games with the Florida Panthers in 2018-19, is describing his friend Alexander Romanov — the 21-year-old Montreal Canadiens defenceman with whom he teamed up for the KHL’s CSKA Moscow in 2019-20. It’s halfway through a 20-minute WhatsApp call on Saturday that he offers this quip — which could easily be misinterpreted — as a commentary on Romanov’s always sunny disposition and his seemingly unflappable personality.
We find it to be a particularly important distinction about a kid who’s jumping into a scorching hot cauldron of a hockey market in Montreal with no parachute. Since Romanov signed with the Canadiens in July, the expectations have gone from high to practically unreasonable — fuelled mostly by his virtual guarantee to a spot on a deep and versatile blue line, but also by some comments like this one Montreal defence coach Luke Richardson made on a recent Zoom video conference:
“At this point in time, based on what I’ve seen, I’m not scared at all that he’s not able to do any kind of job in the NHL.”
Richardson said this in early December, exactly a month before the Canadiens took to the ice for their first training camp practice at the Bell Sports Complex in Brossard.
We’d bring it back down to Earth if what we had seen over the last week hadn’t confirmed exactly what Richardson had gleaned from just a handful of viewings on television and even fewer playoff bubble practices in Toronto, where Romanov was a Black Ace for the Canadiens in August. The kid looks like a man: a six-foot, 208-pound man with an authoritative skating stride and a penchant for covering a lot of ice and involving himself in every aspect of the play.
The Canadiens also love Romanov’s play-killing ability in the defensive zone and, from what we’ve seen, they should. His gap control is precise and calculated, his stick is active and seemingly always in the right place and his body is engaged and prepared to dole out some physical punishment.
It can also be deduced the Canadiens coaches feel Romanov’s skill set should lead to more offence than his KHL stats — one goal and 11 points in 86 games over two seasons with Moscow — suggest he’s capable of producing. One of the reasons they have him quarterbacking the second unit of the power play is because, as head coach Claude Julien put it earlier this week, “he has a really good shot.”
Romanov’s speed and instincts also factor into his placement there.
Still, the Canadiens will start the 38th pick in the 2018 draft walking before running, partnering him with Brett Kulak on the team’s third defence pairing — a move that Kiselevich believes will greatly benefit him.
“Let him learn and he will take off,” Kiselevich says. “It’s best to understand everything and don’t make mistake. Look at (Tampa Bay Lighting star Nikita) Kucherov: he played in the AHL, went to NHL third line and now he’s a (expletive) machine.”
But Kiselevich also describes a player who will be hard to keep down.
“Romanov is the kind of guy that, if you just give him, he’ll take… Just put him into hell and wait about 10 games, and he’ll come out on top,” he says. “He will survive and end up becoming the best at it. He’s that kind of guy.”
Kiselevich also gave us some more insight on Romanov’s personality, which is vital to gain some semblance of how the kid will adapt to his new environment and fit into a room with five Stanley Cup winners and some big-league personalities.
In a normal year, we’d get a small window into all of that and be able to use some of that information to add perspective to what gets said about him by Julien or the other players. But this isn’t a normal year, and we’re still conducting all media availability virtually.
Hence our desire to speak with someone who spent at least a year as Romanov’s teammate.
“He’s like (expletive) battery, always charged,” Kiselevich repeats several times throughout our conversation. “One time, we had a schedule where we had four games in a row and we’re tired and we get in the room and it’s like, ‘Don’t make music too loud,’ and ‘I need coffee,’ and he’ll walk in and be, ‘Let’s go on the ice, guys, let’s go to warmup or play basketball or something,’ and we’ll yell at him and tell him to shut up.
“He’s always full of energy. Even when you’re sitting with him on the bench, he’s always jumping around or yelling or screaming, and he’s just watching and doing everything at 100 per cent. He always can’t wait to get back on the ice.”
Kiselevich also calls Romanov “shy,” but it’s obvious he means that he’s a well-mannered person and respectful.
“He’s always, ‘You’re the older guy, you can be first,’” he says. “He’s not the guy who speaks bad about other guys, like some guys do… He sees the good side of a person and gets along with everybody.”
And Kiselevich says Romanov can take a good ribbing as well as anyone, which matters in the team construct.
“He has ugly shoes. He’s young and loves those ugly sneakers, so we laugh a lot about that,” Kiselevich says. “They’re terrible.
“And we laugh at him because he takes a Mercedes from his father and drives like ‘Look at me, I’m driving a Mercedes.’”
Kiselevich says those aren’t the only things Romanov’s friends and teammates razz him about.
“We call him Bill,” which is a teasing ode to the kid’s legendary grandfather.
“The Mike Babcock of Russia,” is how Kiselevich refers to Romanov’s grandfather, Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, who played 15 years of pro hockey with Dynamo Moscow before building one of the most impressive coaching resumes in the country’s history as a winner of multiple Gagarin Cups, a world championship gold medalist and the bench boss of Russia’s Olympic team for the 2014 Games in Sochi.
Kiselevich says Romanov relies on his grandfather’s advice, and that he checks in here and there with his father, Stanislav Romanov — a left winger who bounced around the old Russian Super League for 16 seasons.
But Kiselevich also said Romanov’s his own man, who “wants to be independent” and one who “can handle himself and knows what to do.”
To these eyes, that appears to be a very accurate description of Romanov the player, too. As we wrote earlier this week, he’s consistently been the first player on for practice and the last player off.
And in between, Romanov’s engine has seemed to be steadily red-lining.
“If he’s going to play 10-12 minutes (at even strength) on a third pair, that’s nothing for him,” says Kiselevich. “In the summer, we always play pro tournaments of 3-on-3, and you can have three games per day of 3-on-3. A normal team would have nine guys and they change fast, but in his team this summer, some days, it was four or five guys and he was (expletive) playing without changes and loving it. And the games are one hour-and-a-half.
“We’re watching him like, ‘Hey, are you never tired on some days? What the (expletive) are you drinking? What the (expletive) are you eating?’ And he’s like, ‘No, I’m not tired. I want to play more.’
“Just (expletive) kill him or break his skates. He can skate at night and skate in the morning and he’ll skate all day if you don’t stop him.”
When you hear stuff like this, it’s not hard to understand why the Canadiens’ brass is so high on Romanov.
With a more complete snapshot of who Romanov is and how he plays, the biggest question now is about how he will adapt. After all, he’s in a foreign country with a limited but functional understanding of the English language, facing the best quality of competition he’s ever seen, playing on a smaller ice surface than he’s accustomed to — and on the right side of the ice, where he’s barely played as a pro.
But Kiselevich told us Romanov’s a quick learner, a player unlikely to repeat mistakes and he also said he welcomes advice.
“We tell him something and he goes and does it on the next shift,” Kiselevich said.
It’s something the Canadiens have seen in their limited exposure to Romanov thus far.
“What you like about him… this guy’s (21) years old, he’s played in the KHL, so he’s got some good experience here at the pro level,” said Julien on Saturday. “He’s very confident. He’s gonna make mistakes like anybody else, but he’s really gung ho on fixing his mistakes as soon as he makes one.
“Sometimes you gotta live with mistakes to a certain extent at this level, but the thing with players like that is they learn quickly. And we just see a guy that’s really excited to be part of our group and, from what I’ve seen since Day 1 at training camp, he seems to be adapting well, he seems to be fairly comfortable and very receptive also to some of the things that we’re telling him.”
With all of that said, and with Kiselevich offering a deeper perspective on Romanov’s background, it’s time to see how it all plays out in his first NHL games.