Sport-Express’ Igor Eronko is reporting today that word out of Russia suggests the Toronto Maple Leafs may be close to signing 25-year-old KHL winger Alexander Barabanov to an NHL contract.

With the remainder of the KHL season canceled due to the pandemic, the annual European free agent sweepstakes are moving up from the usual timeframe in May, and it sounds like a decision could be coming soon from Barabanov:

A 5’10, 192-pound left shot, Barabanov finished top 20 in KHL scoring last season with 46 points in 56 games for SKA St. Petersburg. His numbers were down this season with 20 points in 43 games, but as Elliotte Friedman noted in a 31 Thoughts column back in November, his ice time opportunity was reduced early in the year (from 15:26 to 13:19 in the first 12 games) and he got off to a slow start with three points in the opening 12 games. He finished the year with 17 points in his final 31, with a TOI average of 15:41.

Friedman also noted in that column that many close to the situation were speculating at the time that Jim Paliafito, the Leafs‘ Director of Player Evaluation, may win another sweepstake for a sought-after Euro free agent in Barabanov. Notably, the scouting and recruiting efforts of Paliafito overseas, as well as the involvement of Mike Babcock in the pursuits, led to the Leafs landing Ilya Mikheyev in the 2019 offseason — Mikheyev went on to have an excellent although abbreviated rookie season — as well as Nikita Zaitsev back in 2016.

Mikheyev and Barabanov share an agent in Dan Milstein, who spoke last Fall of Paliafito’s relentless work to track and get to know the player in question, establish a relationship, and land his player.

“Every time I was at a game, Jim was at the game,” Milstein told the Toronto Sun.  “I saw him so much that I thought maybe he’s following me or maybe I’m following him. He was always there. My experience is that other clubs don’t do this, don’t get this involved. They watch. They don’t get to know the person. Jim is the hardest working person in the business, the hardest working person I see everywhere.”

Milstein also represents Nikita Zaitsev and spoke at the time of Paliafito’s work in landing the Russian defenseman a few years previous:

“I think people probably underestimate what Jim does for that organization. You don’t hear his name at all. He sets up everything. The Leafs, they do it right. And then for Lou to jump on a plane and close a deal, really, that’s unheard of. Nikita had conversations with maybe 15 teams. Ask me how many GMs jumped on a plane to meet him. The answer: zero. And when a legendary GM and a legendary player does that to meet with you, it tells you how you fit in.”

The Leafs have been very active in pursuit of KHL (prospective) free-agent talent all season long, including reported meetings with Mikhail Grigorenko and Nikita Nesterov.

Barabanov could add depth/upside to the team’s wings as an undersized but skilled forward who has a solid track record of production in the KHL as well as on the international stage, where he’s represented Team Russia in the U18s, U20s, the World Championships, and the Olympic Games. While his physical attributes don’t leap off the page, he hasn’t carried the reputation of a perimeter player in the KHL and is generally described as playing a game bigger than his size. He’s strong on his edges, competitive, and elusive in traffic/down low:

The undrafted Barabanov will turn 26 in June and would be looking at a one-year entry-level contract wherever he lands in the NHL.

Alexander Barabanov Statistics

2010-11 SKA-1946 St. PetersburgMHL296410103|
2011-12 SKA-1946 St. PetersburgMHL481821391612|Playoffs520202
 Russia U18WJC-18611204|
2012-13 HK VMF St. PetersburgVHL100000|
 SKA-1946 St. PetersburgMHL643942811438|Playoffs752727-1
2013-14 SKA St. PetersburgKHL51012-1|Playoffs410101
 VMF-Kareliya St. PetersburgVHL21731080|
 SKA-1946 St. PetersburgMHL134121642|Playoffs631402
 Russia U20WJC-20733643|
2014-15 SKA St. PetersburgKHL1542603|Playoffs100000
 SKA-Kareliya St. PetersburgVHL132136-3|
 SKA-1946 St. PetersburgMHL21161531612|Playoffs15981723
2015-16 SKA St. PetersburgKHL406111748|Playoffs1413442
 SKA-Neva St. PetersburgVHL331400|
2016-17 SKA St. PetersburgKHL551312251020|Playoffs1722423
 Russia (all)International1615623|
2017-18 SKA St. PetersburgKHL46101222417|Playoffs1333668
 Russia (all)International2355104|
 Russia II (all)International30110|
2018-19 SKA St. PetersburgKHL581729461234|Playoffs153252-5
 Russia (all)International21279414|
2019-20 SKA St. PetersburgKHL431192022-5|Playoffs412321