Romano could be a Devilish scorer
By Shawn P. Roarke | NHL.com Senior Writer
Aug. 4, 2006
One thing the New Jersey Devils never have had is an overabundance of natural scorers in their system.
Sure, the organization has hit home runs in recent years with the emergence of home-grown stars like Patrik Elias, Scott Gomez and Brain Gionta. But, New Jersey's farm system never has been a haven for prolific scorers.
In fact, the Devils' scheme has excelled at producing the two-way forwards and positionally sound defenseman who have been the benchmark of the organization throughout a decade of excellence that featured three Stanley Cup titles.
New Jersey went the defensive route again this past June, picking stay-at-home defenseman Matthew Corrente with their pick late in the first round. Corrente has been compared to franchise icon Ken Daneyko, a heart-and-soul rearguard who helped form the foundation upon which the team's run of success was built.
But after that typical Devils pick, the team's scouting staff went off the beaten path often in the later rounds as it looked for offensive players who had the potential to flourish in the new-look NHL.
First, the Devils selected two Russian wingers who have been busy tearing apart the Russian Junior system. High-scoring and offensively gifted left wing Alexander Vasyunov was taken in the second round after questions about his dedication and two-way ability dropped him out of the first round.
Right wing Vladimir Zharkov, meanwhile, was one of two third-round picks by New Jersey. He is another gifted scorer who shows a willingness to play a more physical North American game.
The Devils believe they have the chance to hit home runs with both of these players as they develop from brash teenagers to more seasoned pros. But, the team also has high hopes for sixth-round pick, center Tony Romano, who was selected 178th overall.
Romano, who will attend Cornell University this fall, played his junior hockey for the nearby New York Bobcats of the relatively new Atlantic Junior Hockey League.
There, Romano scored 102 points in 40 games. But, many dismissed those prodigious numbers because of the lack of reputation associated with the AJHL, a Tier III Junior A league based on the Eastern seaboard of the United States, enjoys.
Romano knew his stock might be hurt by remaining in the AJHL, but he believed it was best for his development. Plus, he showed loyalty to his coach, Aleksey Nikiforov. Loyalty is always a valued trait when it comes to the Devils.
"I've been with him since I was 3, 3-1/2 years old," Romano explained. "He promised me that he would make me an even better player than I already was and when he makes promises like that, he doesn't let you down. His word means a lot. Just being with him and playing for him another year, made a world of a difference."
Nikiforov is a top developer of young talent. He has worked with up-and-coming NHL stars like Chris Higgins and Mike Komisarek. He also works with more established NHL stars, like defenseman Darius Kasparaitis. Nikiforov has coached Kasparaitis since the player's youth days in Lithuania. Nikiforov came to the United States in 1992.
Romano practices, and scrimmages, with many of Nikiforov's pro clients on a daily basis during summer training sessions on Long Island, getting an accurate and brutally honest read at where he stands in his quest to become a pro-caliber player.
But, even with Nikiforov's golden touch and Romano?s unquestioned work ethic, most team's shied completely away from Romano early in the season. In fact, his selection to the Team USA roster for the Viking Cup, an annual mid-season international select team tournament held in Camrose Alberta, may have made all the difference.
Romano starred at that showcase, fitting right in on a roster dominated by players from the much more highly regarded United States Hockey League, the only Tier I Junior A league in America. He finished the tournament with seven points to rank fourth on the Team USA scoring chart as the Americans claimed an impressive bronze medal. In a preliminary-round game against Finland, Romano had a goal and three assists -- including helpers on two goals by former Bobcat linemate James Marcou -- to really open the eyes of NHL scouts in attendance.
"He got the credit he deserved when he played at the Viking Cup," said Nikiforov. "He had a very solid tournament there."
The Devils believe in Romano's offensive ability and now, they know, he will work on his all-around game at Cornell, a university program valued for its ability to produce complete players. New Jersey will retain Romano's rights throughout his college career, making the selection of this project case a little more palatable.Cornell coach Peter Schafer believes that Romano has all the abilities to eventually become a top-flight prospect.
"Obviously, we liked his offensive abilities," Schafer said. "His skill level really stands out. His offensive instincts just jump off the ice at you. He does a good job when he has the puck, but he also does good things away from the puck to get himself in position to get the puck."
And, Nikiforov believes that Romano will mature -- physically, mentally and emotionally -- in the college setting. He insists that Romano can put on the necessary weight and muscle to make his current 5-foot-10, 170-pound frame more NHL ready.
"He's not ready now," Nikiforov said. "He's going to Cornell, which is good for him. I think two years minimum and he becomes a man there. Physically is a weakness for him right now. Even with the new rules in the NHL, he needs to get stronger to be successful, even at the college level."
Romano is certainly willing to do the work. After all, he has been doing the training with Nikiforov for at close to 15 years now. He will not be satisfied with just being drafted, Romano wants to hit the home run the Devils are seeking.
"(Being drafted) is just a step in the process,"