Alexander Barabanov, Toronto Maple Leafs
BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA - MAY 21: #94 Alexander Barabanov of Russia skates during the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Slovakia group game between Sweden and Russia at Ondrej Nepela Arena on May 21, 2019 in Bratislava, Slovakia. (Photo by RvS.Media/Robert Hradil/Getty Images)

In today’s Leafs Links, the latest on the Alexander Barabanov sweepstakes courtesy of agent Dan Milstein, while Morgan Rielly and Jason Spezza provide updates from their homes as the suspended NHL season enters its fourth week.

Dan Milstein on Leafs’ pursuit of Alexander Barabanov, contract negotiations between Leafs and Ilya Mikheyev (Fan 590)

Agent of both Ilya Mikheyev and KHL free agent Alexander Barabanov, Dan Milstein joined Sportsnet Today to discuss Barabanov’s upcoming decision on his NHL destination as well as Ilya Mikheyev’s contract status.

On the NHL sweepstakes for Barabanov’s services:

He has narrowed his search down to two teams. The cat is out of the bag: It’s the Arizona Coyotes and the Toronto Maple Leafs. I would like to thank both of the organizations; they have been first class over the last three years talking to Alexander. Mike Babcock, when he was still the head coach, made the trip to Russia to see him. Kyle Dubas and John Chayka have been to Russia numerous times to watch him and have meetings over the last two years. It has been a long process. This past week, we have had numerous FaceTime conversations with not only the General Managers but the head coaches. The owners of the teams were on the call making the final pitch to Alex and his wife to select their team.

On how close Barabanov is to a final decision:

We are very close. We are down to the final stretch. He has obviously had plenty of time over the years to communicate with a number of teams. If you recall at the Worlds in May of last year, he played with Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Kuznetsov on the same line. He has had plenty of opportunities to play with and against NHL players over the years. He has had plenty of time to speak to teams. I am hopeful that over the next couple of days — maybe a week or so — he will narrow it down to one team and will enter into contract negotiations, which I don’t expect to last more than five minutes because Alex will be signing a one-year entry-level contract.

On what it is like dealing with younger GMs such as the Coyotes’ John Chayka or the Leafs’ Kyle Dubas:

There is a good quote I am going to use here: The professionals built the Titanic and the amateurs built the Ark. To translate, obviously, we love each other and hate each other all in the same sentence as you negotiate a contract. I run my business and put myself in someone else’s shoes and I like to walk in them to understand where they come from. I have great relationships with Kenny Holland, with Lou Lamoriello, as well as with Kyle and John. 

The younger generations are a little more tech savvy and are willing to jump on a plane and go across the world, but I can say the same thing about Ken Holland. I’ve been with him in Russia many times. Any time you call him, 24 hours a day, he would always answer the call. Age is not as important as personality. There are some teams in the league that you have to call, text, and wait for one or two or three days for them to respond. Some of the other guys are more like me where no matter what, you always answer the call on the first ring. 

On the Leafs’ history with Russian players and whether it’s a factor in the decision for Barabanov:

Toronto has had good luck with the Russian players. I myself have had a number of players in the Maple Leafs system. Each individual case is different. While it is important to see how their players are being treated, there is no such thing as one glove fits all. You have to look at the roster. You have to look at the coaching staff, the stability, and many other factors that go into making a decision.

Also, you have to remember, teams have been building relationships with Alex over two or three years. This isn’t something where all of a sudden we allow two phone calls to come in and he is selecting from two doors.

On Ilya Mikheyev’s health:

Miky is ready to go. If we were to play the season, he was scheduled to return on March the 19th. He would’ve played his first game. He is in good spirits. He is currently in Toronto, like everybody else. He is isolating himself but he is still working out and getting ready for the season to resume — hopefully, that is going to happen in the near future. He is excited.

On contract negotiations between the Leafs and Mikheyev:

We have had a couple of conversations earlier. January 1st was the first day that we were allowed to go and make an offer. Basically, they called to let us know they were interested in retaining Ilya. Also, we had a conversation maybe about a month or so ago. This was just a cordial conversation. I’ve spoken with Ilya. While he wants to be in Toronto, the best thing for us is to wait so he can play some more games and see what he can do.

Morgan Rielly on workout routine, quarantine life (TSN1050)

Morgan Rielly joined the guys on Overdrive to discuss how he is spending his days during the suspended season and the team’s outlook for the season if it resumes.

On his workout routine at home:

It has been home workouts, obviously, which makes it a bit more difficult. Riding a bike, bodyweight workouts, and just doing some maintenance stuff. There is really no excuse not to do it right now just because we’re at home for so long. You wake up and you just try to create a plan for yourself. I think that’s the most important thing right now. For me, it is so easy to just have a coffee or two and just kind of be lazy, but if you have a plan and an approach you are trying to take every single day, it helps me to just get my day started with a workout. That is oftentimes riding a bike for 30-40 minutes and then I do a little core and bodyweight stuff. I like doing that stuff in the morning and having a schedule, but there is no question it can be difficult at times. That being said, we are all in it together and you’ve got to do what you can to keep your body ready. It is important for us right now.

On a tumultuous season including an injury and now a suspended season:

The injury happened on January 12th and it was an eight-week process trying to get back from a broken foot. It was tough for sure. There were days where you are in a case and it’s not great being at home while the guys are on the road. You are doing what you can to get back and help the team. During that time, we had some games that we could be really proud of and some games that weren’t our best. It motivates you to come back and be a difference maker. 

When you come back and play one game, feel good and you win — we beat a good team in Tampa — and then you go on this pause, it is not what you want. That being said, if you’re going to take a pause, at least I got one in. I think I’d be going nuts if I hadn’t played since early January. It is obviously not ideal, but to come back and be around the guys again was a great feeling. The pause is difficult, but we’re all dealing with the same thing. Nobody wants to be in this situation, but it’s important we do our part and stay inside and do what we can to beat this thing so we can get back to playing soon.

On the team’s up and down season:

If you are a team that has high expectations and you hold yourself to a high standard, you don’t want to look back at the year and be a team that has the ups and downs that we have had so far. You want to be more consistent than we have been — there is no question about that. The players are completely aware of that.

I want to come back and play, but we don’t know when that is going to be. We are obviously going to do what we are told by the health professionals, but if you have an opportunity to play the playoffs, you want to prove people wrong. There are definitely lots of people that have been hard on our team and rightfully so given the way we have played at times. As players, we really believe in the group that we’ve had and what we have built over the years. 

If that chance to play comes, that is a big opportunity for us to come back and prove people wrong and try to make the most of a situation that isn’t great for anyone. As a team, we really do believe in what we have built. That would be a good chance for us to come back and play some good hockey.

On what it would be like to play playoff hockey in August:

I really have no idea. I don’t know what to expect. If that is what happens, it will be on us as players to make the most of it and be prepared for that. We want to play for sure, but we are going to do what is best. If that is what the league decides, then it is on us to be ready. It is certainly going to be strange, but just being given the opportunity to play again would be worth it for sure.

On that note, there is more going on than just hockey and we all know that. I think we just have to stay ready, do our part when it comes to the quarantine, stay healthy, help flatten the curve and beat this thing. We’ll deal with the hockey later.

On what he misses most about his regular routines:

Being able to play in Toronto and live downtown, you are exposed to a great part of the world we get to live in. I miss just going for walks downtown. You poke your head into a coffee shop on Queen Street somewhere — I really enjoyed doing that kind of stuff. Obviously, being home in Vancouver right now, that’s not really in the cards. Even if we were in Toronto, we are not supposed to be doing that. You just miss being social with other people and experiencing downtown Toronto for everything that it is. I am certainly looking forward to a time where we are able to do that again and we’re able to go out in groups with your teammates and go for dinner. 

All of those things that come with doing a team sport — you get to spend time with your friends every day, being at the rink, and practicing. There are times over the course of a long season where practicing is probably one of the last things you want to do just because of the grind of the season, but we miss being there and we miss being together at the rink. We are so lucky to do what we do. Once you kind of lose track of all of the small things you do along the way, you really start to appreciate them.

Jason Spezza on quarantine life, 2019-20 season (TSN1050)

Jason Spezza joined Overdrive to discuss Auston Matthews likely missing out on the 50-goal milestone this year, his 2019-20 season, and the outlook for the rest of the season if it resumes.

On finding his role on the team after a tough start:

Early on was a bit of a struggle just to try to find a role on the team, but once I found a role, I felt I was able to contribute. My role kind of changes night to night. Some nights, I am playing bigger minutes in the top-nine guys. Other nights, I am on the fourth line and on special teams. You have to stay sharp in that role. I’ve tried to be a guy the coaching staff can use in different positions at different teams. It has been pretty successful, somewhat. There are still areas I can improve on, but for the most part, I think I’ve been able to contribute and be a good presence in the room.

On how the team has gelled through an inconsistent year:

This season has really tested the resolve of the group. There have been ups and downs. There have been times people have been hard on us. There have been times we’ve been hard on ourselves. I think we’ve grown a lot. Internally, the freedom guys have to have honest conversations with each other is a lot higher than it was when I got here at the start of the year. Our practice habits have gotten better. The competitiveness is coming out in our group. 

I think that is why we would like to see the season through. It hasn’t gone exactly as planned, but some of the stuff and the hardships have made us a more resilient group and a closer group. When you can kind of look across at the guy and tell him how you are feeling, I think that makes you a closer team. I think that goes a long way for a team.

On Auston Matthews’ pursuit of 50 goals before the pause:

It is not something you talk about with the guy doing it, but the guys around him, we wanted to see him do it. You like seeing your teammates hit milestones. I think it gives the team a shot in the arm, too. We knew he was approaching 50 and we’d have liked to have seen him get to 50 and beyond. He is a pretty humble kid in that he doesn’t talk about his own success. He works like a dog. I can tell you I know he wanted to get it. He would say the same thing, but he is a pretty humble guy in that he doesn’t put his own personal stuff ahead of the guys. It was more the other guys talking about it among ourselves than with him.

Dreger on how late the season could start (TSN1050)

Darren Dreger joined First Up and Overdrive to discuss what the NHL season might look like if it were to resume and how late into the summer it could run.

On Mike Babcock’s status for next season:

I haven’t talked to him specifically about his intentions, but I did swap texts with him the other day. It was more about life and how things are going. At the moment, it’s very, very quiet. He has had a whirlwind since being fired by the Leafs. I don’t think he is in any rush. I really don’t. If there is another opportunity — I am in the camp that believes there will be — it is going to have to be the right opportunity. Maybe more of a veteran team he can step into that is a little bit closer to winning than the Toronto Maple Leafs were when he first took over. In saying that, Mike is a hockey coach and he is going to be willing to listen to ideas. Given the uncertainty of hockey period and the stress of the world right now, I’d be surprised if there is anything on the table as early as next season. He may have to wait this out. Financially, that is not going to be a problem.

On how late the season could realistically resume:

We continue to speculate on when the breaking point might be where the league says, “We can’t play or conclude a meaningful season. The integrity of the Stanley Cup is most definitely being tarnished here and we can’t do it.” Every day, I learn that there is a willingness to push this back almost as far as possible. We are talking about the potential of starting in August. That might not be reality; God willing, it will be a lot sooner than that. But it speaks to the appetite of the players and the owners of just getting hockey back when it is safe to do so and grabbing as many revenue dollars as possible so they can start repairing some of the financial damage that we are seeing on a day-by-day basis.