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Unfolding: Canadiens Fight to Include Young Russian Star vs. Penguins

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Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Montreal Canadiens, GM Marc Bergevin

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and his deputy Bill Daly shrugged it off as not possible. The Montreal Canadiens are pushing to sign Russian defenseman and former Montreal second-round pick Alexander Romanov to a contract so he can play against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the NHL Return to Play Qualifying Round.

Bettman said contracts during the season are not permitted, and he may be correct. But the league’s stance is not ironclad.

Montreal selected Romanov with the 38th overall pick in 2018. The 20-year old defenseman played the last two seasons in the KHL, where he scored 11 points (1g, 10a) in 86 career games.

On the surface, Penguins fans may shrug, too.

However, Montreal believes the 5-foot-11, 182-pound defenseman could be a difference-maker. Currently, the Montreal blueline is thin, as doctors have not yet cleared Victor Mete to resume activities. The Montreal defenseman suffered a broken foot on Feb. 18. His status for the Qualifying Round presumed to be held in later July is still unclear.

Without Mete, the Montreal defensive corps has issues (even with Mete, too). Their third pairing consists of Xavier Ouellet and Christian Foulin, who are neither blue-chippers or NHL veterans. Ouellet, 25, is on a one-year, two-way contract. Foulin has passed through waivers on his way back and forth from the AHL this season.

As we broke down the Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Montreal matchup, the Montreal third pairing was the glaring weakness.

However, Montreal GM Marc Bergevin is attempting to solidify his lineup by signing Romanov.

Romanov is a swift skating defenseman with a physical streak. For the past two seasons, he has been a lineup staple for CSKA Moscow, which is the KHL team accused of being allowed to circumvent KHL salary cap rules to stack its roster because of its relationship with Russian dictator President Vladimir Putin.

It’s like getting signed by the New York Yankees. CKSA Moscow is the best team not in the NHL.

Romanov has dominated the last two World Junior Championships. In 2019, Romanov posted eight points (1g, 7a) in seven games. At the 2020 WJC, he put up six points (1g, 5a).

CSKA Moscow used Romanov against some of the top scorers in the league. In other words, the kid is fearless and talented. It’s no wonder Montreal is pushing to sign him and include him in the NHL Return to Play Plan — slash — NHL playoffs.

He could be a significant upgrade and a wild-card in a series against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Case Against

Since Romanov wasn’t signed this season, he cannot play in the playoffs. Easy-peasy.

“Right now, the position of the league is clear. It’s been the same since the break started. No team has the right to sign a contract during the current year,” Bettman said.

Once Romanov and Montreal chose to play the year without the defenseman in the NHL, he became ineligible for this season. KHL contracts expire on April 30, and players are not eligible to sign with NHL clubs before then. Since that date is well after the typical start of the NHL playoffs, KHL players cannot parachute into the Stanley Cup battles as reinforcements.

Usually.

The NHL has an agreement with the KHL, which prevents NHL teams from signing away KHL players during the spring. It’s part of an uneasy truce which governs the player transfers.

However, those rules are for normal circumstances. And Bergevin made a shifty move which could swing in his favor.

The Case For

Bergevin has a case. The NHLPA may choose to involve itself, too. Bergevin addressed the topic during his press conference on Wednesday.

“As an organization, we would like him to participate in the return to play,” Bergevin said. “In fact, there is no final decision as to the possibility that he will participate in this tournament. … The decision does not only belong to the NHL, but also to the Players’ Association.”

First, there is precedent to include Romanov. Last season, Columbus signed Vladislav Gavrikov on April 13. Gavrikov played in two playoff games, which burned the first year of his ELC.

The NHL allowed Gavrikov to play.

Second, Montreal added Romanov to their reserve list at the NHL trade deadline, which theoretically opens the door to inclusion in the NHL Return to Play because Romanov was on the list before the February roster deadline.

Romanov’s agent Dan Milstein told French-Canadian journalist Guillaume Lafrancois (translated), “Our interpretation is that Alexander’s contract should be valid this season. His situation is no different from that of my client Vladislav Gavrikov, who joined Columbus last year during the playoffs.”

Because Montreal is willing to sacrifice a year of Romanov’s contract, the player would reach free agency faster. The NHLPA must like that idea, while the NHL wants to preserve the transfer rules, so a herd of Russian ringers doesn’t show up only for the Cup run.

In a short series in an already wild situation, the Pittsburgh Penguins should win easily over the worst team in the 24-team NHL return. Montreal was 10 points out of a playoff spot when the season paused on March 12. The Penguins are better in nearly every facet, but there is an unpredictability factor in the short Qualifying Round because teams will resume play after a four or five-month layoff.

Montreal certainly isn’t lying down.

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