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Maple Leafs linked to free agent Alexander Barabanov

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The KHL free agent rush is on.

KHL Western Conference Quarterfinal, Leg 1: SKA St Petersburg vs Vityaz Moscow Region
Less than one month ago, Barabanov was playing in the KHL.
Photo by Peter Kovalev\TASS via Getty Images

Three weeks ago Alexander Barabanov played in a playoff game for SKA St. Petersburg. He played over 33 minutes, the second most of any forward, in a game that went into three overtime periods. SKA won it on a goal from Lukas Bengstsson at 113:27 into the game giving SKA the sweep of Vityaz in the first round of the playoffs. They were free to rest up for the second round.

And then the season was over. Barabanov wasn’t going to get a chance at another Gagarin Cup (he has two).

Now, a little earlier than usual, the KHL free agents are considering their options. The word is that Barabanov, subject of rumours for some time, is considering the Toronto Maple Leafs for his attempt at NHL hockey.

A quick look at the vital statistics for Barabanov should tell you why it’s the Leafs and the Coyotes, and I’ll bet Chicago, who are interested. He’s 5’10” and 192 lb, which means he’s built more like William Nylander than Mitch Marner, but he’s still one of those small wingers some teams are nervous of. He is a left-shooting right wing, and will be 26 this summer.

His age makes Barabanov too old for an ELC, which raises intriguing questions about his contract structure. When Ilya Mikheyev was signed last summer, he was still 24, so he had to be signed to a one-year ELC. For Barabanov, he can negotiate any deal he likes. For example: he could sign a deal with a team willing to pay him a large portion of his salary as signing bonus, and then, even if he flops and the contract is terminated, he’s been paid almost the full amount. This is the big advantage Toronto has over Arizona if they are still both vying for him.

What sort of player is he?

Alex is a Rangers fan, prospect watcher, and frequent KHL viewer. He’s speaking from a lot of experience watching a team full of Rangers prospects over the years.

But the box cars are not going to impress you in this season:

Barabanov, from St. Petersburg, has grown up in the SKA club, and he impressed in the junior ranks in the MHL averaging over one point per game, with a lot of those points coming from his own goals. In the KHL, that proportion has stayed the same, meaning he’s a shooter as much as a setup man, but the rate has dropped in half — 62 goals in 262 KHL games is not a top line player in the NHL. For comparison, Mikheyev went from .94 points per game in junior to nearly the same rate in the KHL as Barabanov — just over .5. The difference is Mikheyev had a very strong year last season before coming to Toronto, and Barabanov has 20 points in 43 games.

Barabanov’s hand was broken on this play, and that forced him to miss about 10 games, and miss most of the national team action. We also need to understand that he has spent his career playing on the deepest team in hockey. SKA acquired some extra players this season, including Vityaz star and former Marlie Miro Aaltonen, in ways that raise questions about the level of their power to stock their team for cup runs. That’s a problem for other KHL teams to attempt to solve, but the result is that stars come in and shove the ordinary players down the lineup in ways that are highly unusual in pro hockey.

Barabanov began his KHL career playing fourth-line minutes in 2015-2016, his first full year as a pro, and he only climbed over the 14 minute mark for the first time in 2018. He’s been steady at 20 shifts per game and 15 minutes ever since, which makes him a middle-six player. However, this season in his brief playoffs, he frequently lined up with Aaltonen as the centre and Vladimir Tkachyov on left wing. Tkachyov was rumoured to be after an NHL contract last summer, but it never happened. They are two of a kind, small, mobile and good with the puck. But the fact that Barabanov’s ice time went up in the playoffs tells a different story about his most recent season than his raw points do.

Trick move:

This compilation gives you an idea of how he uses his left-shot as a right-winger. Some players really love playing their offside, but it’s entirely possible that like any good winger, he can change over if he needed to.

Just a reminder that as of now, NHL teams are not allowed to sign players for this season, not even their own drafted players on their reserve list. Regardless, unless the NHL makes up a whole new set of rules for a resumption of the 2019-2020 season, a player not on a team’s reserve list (so any free agent) would have to clear entry waivers to be added now. If Barabanov signs a deal, it’s for next year.

This is just the first of many KHL players who will be sought after this year, so expect more ripe, juicy rumours in the days to come.

Update from The Voice of Agents:

Ignore the information in the Hornby tweet, it is nearly entirely inaccurate.

Update: