TORONTO — The Maple Leafs have landed another Russian lottery ticket.
Alexander Barabanov chose Toronto from a field of more than 20 interested NHL teams and signed a one-year, entry-level contract on Tuesday.
The 25-year-old winger arrives after spending parts of seven seasons with SKA St. Petersburg, where he was part of two Gagarin Cup champions. He also won Olympic gold with Russia in 2018 and figures “to be an important piece of the puzzle for us,” according to Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe.
“We’re really excited to add another player to the fold here that we think’s got great experience and a great skillset; very high character as well,” said Keefe. “He just checks a lot of the boxes that you’re always looking for when you’re adding a player that you fully expect to step in and be an important part of your team.”
For the Leafs, he represents the kind of cost-controlled depth they need because of tight salary cap constraints — just as countryman Ilya Mikheyev did this season. The team’s senior director of player evaluation, Jim Paliafito, identified Barabanov as a potential free-agent target several months ago and the Leafs were aggressive in pursuing him.
“He’s not tall, but he’s a very strong winger,” Leafs GM Kyle Dubas said of Barabanov last week. “Tremendous playmaking ability, great skill level in tight. But I think that one of the other things 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 use his strength to be able to do that.”
Barabanov is listed at five-foot-nine, 192 pounds and racked up 28 goals and 66 points across 101 games over his last two KHL seasons.
What he represents, in theory, is a player ready to step directly into Toronto’s lineup next year. He’ll carry a cap hit of just $925,000 — a huge asset on a roster that already has more than $40-million committed to its top-four forwards.
Barabanov is likely to fill a bottom-six role in the NHL, according to a scout who has tracked his progress in Russia, but there’s very little risk here for either the team or player because of the terms of his contract.
Mikheyev started last season on Toronto’s third line after coming over from Avangard Omsk, but had moved up to a spot alongside John Tavares on the second line when he suffered a scary injury in late December — getting an artery and tendons in his right wrist accidentally cut by a skate blade.
Dubas and a member of the team’s medical staff ended up staying with Mikheyev in a New Jersey hospital for three days while he recovered from surgery. That made a huge impression on the player’s family and his agent, Dan Milstein, who has done plenty of other business with Toronto in the past and counts Barabanov among his large list of clients.
In an interview with Sportsnet after that incident, Milstein said the care shown by the Leafs to Mikheyev would be something he’d impress upon future KHL free agents choosing where to start their NHL career.
“I’ve been saying this since long ago: The Maple Leafs as an organization, the way they recruit is almost like college recruiting,” said Milstein. “Many (other) teams would say ‘Yeah, well they can afford to do it.’
“But caring for somebody and treating people like this doesn’t cost any money. Showing support, showing you care, is about a lot more than money.”
Barabanov was also pursued heavily by Arizona and had video meetings with the Leafs and Coyotes last week before making a final decision.
Even before learning what the player was going to do, Dubas noted that the current situation with COVID-19 wouldn’t hamper the Leafs efforts to get his signature on a contract because of the relationship they’d already established. Both he and former coach Mike Babcock had previously met with Barabanov in Russia, and Paliafito maintains a strong presence in the country throughout the season.
“I don’t think the pause has really affected our ability to evaluate and recruit. We’ve just had to change some of the recruiting side of it,” Dubas said last week. “We move into virtual format or FaceTime or Zoom meeting or what have you. I think because of the job that Jim does we’ve already got relationships there so it’s not trying to meet somebody over the phone or meet somebody over a virtual setting.
“We’ve already got a bit of a relationship there.”
Ultimately, it helped land them another asset.
April 7, 2020