Kirill Semyonov signing proves Maple Leafs' KHL pipeline still open

Russia's Kirill Semyonov scores past Germany's goalie Mathias Niederberger during a Euro Ice Hockey Challenge match between Russia and Germany in Sochi, Russia, Friday, April 6, 2018. (Artur Lebedev/AP)

The pipeline between the Kontinental Hockey League and the Toronto Maple Leafs remains open, despite a pair of 2021 recruits failing to pan out as planned.

In signing a one-year, $925,000 entry-level contract with the Maple Leafs Wednesday, Kirill Semyonov is following a path forged by KHL free agents like Ilya Mikheyev and Igor Ozhiganov and, most recently, Mikko Lehtonen and Alexander Barabanov.

Semyonov — a 26-year-old Gagarin Cup champion — will file for a work visa within the next two weeks with hopes of flying to Toronto with his wife and two young children by late June or early July.

Not unlike Barabanov and Mikheyev before him, he is an experienced, cap-friendly forward ready to chase his lifelong NHL dream in earnest.

“Kirill is a very smart, two-way centre. He would be a great addition. Plays very responsibly [and] hard,” Semyonov’s agent, Dan Milstein, explained in a phone call Wednesday.

“It's been a dream to play in the National Hockey League, and he feels it’s the best time to make a switch right now.”

The undrafted Semyonov scored 10 goals and 26 points in 60 games with hometown club Avangard Omsk in 2020-21, his eighth KHL season. The 2019 KHL all-star chipped in another nine playoff points during Avangard’s run to its first Gagarin Cup championship.

Semyonov’s first attempt to crack the NHL can be traced back to 2015, when he was invited to the Chicago Blackhawks development camp.

He has been on the Maple Leafs’ radar for the past three seasons, as GM Kyle Dubas and Toronto’s chief European scout-slash-recruiter, Jim Paliafito, had been keeping in communication with Milstein.

“There were quite a few other teams interested,” Milstein said. “Over the past two years, a lot. A lot.”

Semyonov wanted to play out his contract with Omsk and take time to consider his next move.

“His game will translate well in North America,” Milstein said. “Over the last three seasons Bob Hartley has been his head coach, so he’s used to North American head coaches as well.”

A contract, of course, doesn’t guarantee ice time.

There was significant buzz when KHL imports Lehtonen, 27, and Barabanov, 26, arrived in Toronto at the outset of 2020-21. Both struggled to carve roles for themselves in coach Sheldon Keefe’s competitive lineup. They ended up on non-playoff teams once it became apparent they were on the wrong side of the roster bubble.

Dubas worked with their representatives to facilitate trades that would keep their North American chances afloat.

Lehtonen was dealt to Columbus after nine games on Toronto’s bottom pairing. Barabanov was moved to San Jose at the deadline after 13 games with limited shifts.

Barabanov is also a Milstein client. The versatile winger has since contributed five points in his first five games with the Sharks — a better fit, a greater opportunity.

Did Semyonov hesitate to sign in Toronto considering how Barabanov’s tenure ended?

“No,” Milstein replied.

Semyonov has a close connection to Mikheyev, which should ease his transition to a foreign city.

The two were born just 17 days apart in Omsk. They were schoolmates and teammates from minor hockey right through to their days with Avangard.

With seven current Maple Leafs forwards playing on expiring UFA contracts, and Dubas’s cap picture dependent on overachieving bargain finds (see: Jason Spezza, Joe Thornton, Alex Galchenyuk) expect Semyonov to be firmly in the mix competing for an NHL spot at their 2021-22 camp.

The goal will be to make an impression and force his way into becoming a fixture the way Mikheyev has.

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