It’s official: The Toronto Maple Leafs have won the 20+ team sweepstakes for 26-year-old KHL winger Alexander Barabanov after announcing a one-year, entry-level contract on Tuesday morning.

While most fans conduct hockeydb searches when the news breaks on a new signing out of Europe, this is the culmination of literally years of recruitment efforts by the Maple Leafs.

Agent Dan Milstein, who commended the Leafs‘ success with Russian players on the radio the other day and has now agreed to terms with Toronto on three notable KHL free agent clients (Nikita Zaitsev, Ilya Mikheyev, and Alexander Barabanov) in the past four years, mentioned that Mike Babcock paid a visit to Barabanov over two years ago when the Leafs began their pursuit of Barabanov. Senior Director of Player Evaluation, Jim Paliafito, deserves the lion’s share of the credit for having been in regular contact with the player and agent throughout the entire process, while GM Kyle Dubas has made multiple trips to Russia to sell the player on the Leafs‘ program. During the quarantine, FaceTime calls have taken place between Dubas, head coach Sheldon Keefe, Brendan Shanahan, and Barabanov.

As Milstein noted back when the Leafs won the Ilya Mikheyev sweepstakes, “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.”

As with Mikheyev and Zaitsev, while the Leafs’ financial edge helps when it comes to their extensive scouting and recruiting tentacles into the region, they were not able to offer any more money on the Standard Player Contract than the competition due to the entry-level parameters around signing undrafted under-27-year-olds out of Europe. Led by Dubas and Shanahan, management’s ability to sell players on their program — and now without the draw of Babcock, who is/was well-respected internationally — remains highly encouraging. And adding cheap, NHL-ready talent with notable upside potential like this is especially important with the team’s top-heavy cap structure and the uncertainty in the upper limit next season due to the suspension of play and the estimated loss of $1 billion in Hockey Related Revenue.

While Zaitsev’s bloated seven-year contract ended up punching his ticket out of town amid the cap crunch of the 2019 offseason, between the Russian defenseman establishing himself as a legitimate everyday NHL blue liner and Ilya Mikheyev looking like a highly capable middle-six forward, KHL recruitments have been good bets for the Leafs in recent years. It no doubt helps the Leafs’ recruiting cause that a couple of KHL imports in the recent past have received ample minutes and opportunity out of their first NHL training camp with the Leafs, establishing themselves in the league right away and parlaying one-year entry-level deals in their rookie seasons into lucrative NHL contracts at year’s end, such as the case of Zaitsev and the eventual contract extension upcoming for Ilya Mikheyev.

In Barabanov, the Leafs have added an undersized winger (5’9, 190 pounds) but one who is mature physically and has shown a willingness to compete and battle in the tough areas of the ice, where he flashes high levels of skill and playmaking ability in addition to strong skating edgework. He has played shifts alongside the likes of Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Kuznetsov at the World Championships in the past, so he’s viewed as able to make plays at a high level on the international ice surface. Dubas recently described Barabanov’s game in more detail, mentioning that the organization likes his ability to fit in and make plays on the left side of the lineup alongside some of the shooting talent on the roster at the center and right wing positions:

I think he is not tall but a very strong winger. He has a tremendous skill level and playmaking ability. We are interested in him and I think it is openly out there that we are going to compete for him and try to win this recruitment and have him come to Toronto. I think the thing we are relying on there is the job Senior Director of Player Evaluation, Jim Paliafito, has done with regards to developing relationships with European players and college players, and then having them be able to transition to North America or transition to pro hockey as seamlessly as possible. That is a tribute to Jim and the work he has done to build a relationship with the players and their agents and so forth.

Alex would be, for us, a fit because he is a winger that is a high-end playmaker and has ability but is also very strong and competitive. He has played in a great program in St. Petersburg. He is going to have to decide whether he wants to come to North America — if he wants to play in the NHL or remain there with a great team in St. Petersburg. If he comes here, we see him as someone that could step right in and contribute and make plays off the wing back to our guys in the middle or across the rink to our players that are high-end shooters. We like how competitive he is and how strong he is on the puck.

– Kyle Dubas on new Leaf  Alexander Barabanov

Barabanov had a bit of an off year in 2019-20 (20 points in 43 games), but he has a solid track record of production in the KHL, including 46 points in 53 games in 2018-19, as well as ample experience on the international stage, where he’s represented Team Russia in the U18s, U20s, the World Championships, and the Olympic Games.

Get to know the new Leaf in the clips below.

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