MONTREAL -- Slowly but surely, Alexander Romanov is finding his way in the NHL.

The 21-year-old defenceman now has one regular season with the Montreal Canadiens under his belt and while it was not without a few bumps in the road, overall it has to be viewed as a success. Romanov played 54 of 56 games in, with one goal, five assists, and let loose with his fair share of thunderous body checks.

Like most of the rest of the Canadiens, Romanov played his best hockey early in the season. Right from the get-go, he skated with confidence and energy, made good decisions with the puck and played with a physical edge. When asked in which area Romanov progressed the most this season, interim head coach Dominique Ducharme says it was his play without the puck on the smaller ice surface of the NHL.

“When you watch the Olympics or World Championships… there are some differences when you play defence and how to handle situations like ‘one on ones’,” said Ducharme following Tuesday’s practice. “He’s closing (on opposing forwards) quicker, he’s reading situations better and he can recognize where he can be more aggressive now. Sometimes when you’re closing on guys in certain areas it can be dangerous because it opens so much space behind you or beside you.”

However, as the season went on, there was an obvious decline in Romanov’s offensive decision-making.

“With the puck, he has less time and space here,” said Ducharme. ”When you get toward the end of the season, there’s another adjustment (in the level of play) to make. That’s something that he still needs to work on but all those things are normal. I really like his progression but we have to remember the game goes to another level in the playoffs. To keep up to that progression is the biggest challenge.”

Clearly, Ducharme was concerned Romanov would not be able to elevate his game sufficiently in time to start the post-season; he confirmed after Tuesday’s practice that Romanov would be a healthy scratch for game one of Montreal’s series with Toronto. With Shea Weber ready to play, Romanov got squeezed from the opening night roster in favour of Jon Merrill as part of the third defensive pairing.

Speaking of Merrill, he was one of a large number of partners Romanov had to adjust to this year. While injuries to Weber and Ben Chiarot led to constant adjustments on the Canadiens’ blue line, it would have been interesting to watch Romanov’s season if he had been paired with a veteran like Brett Kulak on his right side from start to finish.

It’s also impossible to overlook the fact that most rookies hit a ‘wall’ late in the season and Romanov was no different as he adjusted to a relentless schedule.

Back to the positives: Alexander Romanov brings a threatening presence that Montreal hasn’t had on defence since the days of Alexei Emelin. He’s the type of player opposing forwards need to be aware of. He has a knack for issuing huge, open-ice hits that is a rare and vital commodity in today’s NHL. In time, he’ll only improve in that area. He also saw some power-play minutes as the season went along and as he learns the league better, his strong skating and heavy shot will help him become a factor offensively.

Romanov created a lot of excitement among the Canadiens’ fan base when he made his debut this season. Despite some normal rookie mistakes, he’s done nothing to disprove the theory that he’ll be a quality defenceman for years to come.