The Toronto Maple Leafs are trying to secure themselves an Ilya Mikheyev 2.0.
Alexander Barabanov is a skilled, undrafted winger out of the Kontinental Hockey League who had contributed three points for contender SKA St. Petersburg’s playoff run before the KHL’s post-season and his contractual obligations to the Russian league came to a screeching halt just four games into the playoffs.
As a free agent with multiple pursuers on this side of the pond (John Chayka’s Arizona Coyotes are reportedly interested as well), Barabanov is open to leaving his hometown of St. Petersburg and joining the NHL in 2020-21.
He has become a target of Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas, and the executive is rapidly gaining a reputation for luring inexpensive, overlooked UFAs out of Europe.
"Alex is a player that we’ve scouted and watched. He, along with many others over there, we’re certainly interested in," Dubas confirmed over a phone conference Tuesday.
"We’ll continue to pursue him as best we can."
The 25-year-old Barabanov has been slipping through defenders the way he slipped right through the 2012 draft. He is a serial winner who has hoisted two Gagarin Cups with SKA (2015, 2017), captured 2018 Winter Games gold with the Olympic Athletes of Russia, and has three bronze medals with the Russian national team (2014 world juniors, 2017 and 2019 world championships).
Barabanov scored 27 goals and put up 66 points over his past two seasons with SKA (101 games played) and projects to a third-line NHLer.
He also fits the Dubas mold in that he’s not exactly the largest body on the ice (five-foot-10, 191 pounds) but makes up for his slight build in oversized skill and determination. His highlights are GIF-worthy.
"He’s a very strong winger. Tremendous play-making ability, skill level in tight. But one of the other things that we like most about him is his ability to make plays under pressure and his ability to win pucks, protect pucks when people come after him, and [he] uses his strength to be able to do that," Dubas said. "So, he’s a play-making winger that also has the ability to finish at the net."
The Maple Leafs’ star-heavy salary-cap structure is such that they depend on filling in their depth positions with emerging players on entry-level contracts or free-agent gems like 2019-20 Russian rookie Mikheyev, who turned heads and earned his teammates’ respect with 23-point showing in 39 games.
Mikheyev shares an agent with Barabanov, Gold Star’s Dan Milstein, with whom the Leafs brass have a sturdy relationship. And Dubas’s personal interest in Mikheyev’s well-being in the wake of December’s horrific wrist injury could go a long way to making Toronto a desirable destination for European imports.
Toronto’s senior director of player evaluations, Jim Paliafito, takes the lead in recruiting European pros and college players. Dubas is quick to shift all the credit to Paliafito, who has also secured the services of free agents Nikita Zaitsev, Calle Rosen, Igor Ozhiganov and Par Lindholm in recent years. All but Ozhiganov are still on NHL rosters.
"He’s got a great read early on, on who the players are that we’re probably going to look after. He does a great job communicating back to the organization and to our player personnel department, and have a look at the players, whether it’s live or break down their video, and then he’s able to begin having conversations with them and their agents during the year to kind of get a handle on it," Dubas explained from home quarantine.
The sudden cancellation of the KHL season and scouting trips over the Atlantic, Dubas figures, has not hindered the club’s ability to evaluate foreign talent.
"We’ve had to change some of the recruiting side of it and move into a virtual format or FaceTime or Zoom meeting or what have you. But because of the job that Jim does, we’ve already gotten relationships there. So, it’s not trying to meet somebody over the phone or meet somebody over a virtual setting; you’ve already got a bit of a relationship there," Dubas said.
"There are players that we’re interested in and we’re competing with many other teams to try to gain recruitment. And our hope is that the ability of the players that have come over from Europe since Jim been with us to quickly transition to pro hockey in North America will be a big help for us."