For the last few years, the Toronto Maple Leafs have been interested in the international free-agent market. With signings like Andreas Borgman, Calle Rosen and more recently Ilya Mikheyev, the Maple Leafs haven’t been shy in giving players from overseas an opportunity to showcase their talent in North America. 

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After some speculation, they announced the signing of the highly skilled and undrafted Russian free agent Alexander Barabanov early Tuesday morning. According to TSN’s Pierre Lebrun, it’s a one-year, entry-level deal worth $925,000. 

Barabanov was a name that was getting a lot of attention at the beginning of the season. Once again the Maple Leafs came out on top as they did with Mikheyev last year. It eventually came down to them and the Arizona Coyotes as the main front-runners for the speedy Russian winger. Here is an overview of who he is and what you can expect.

Who is Alexander Barabanov?

Barabanov has been nothing but an offensive dynamo playing in Russia, both at the junior and pro levels. In Russia’s junior league, the MHL, he was over a point per game average, recording 177 points in 175 games with SKA-1946 St. Petersburg. In 262 games with SKA St. Petersburg of the Kontinental Hockey League, he recorded 62 goals and 75 assists, while winning the Gagarin Cup twice in 2014-15 and 2016-17. He averaged under 16 minutes per game of ice time during the regular season but saw over 20 during the KHL playoffs, recording three points in four games. 

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Barabanov set a career high last season with 17 goals and 29 assists but didn’t have the season he’d like to have had this year. He only tallied 11 goals and 20 points with just 3 points in 12 games to start the season. In addition, he missed some time due to a broken hand, which resulted in low offensive production

Alexander Barabanov SKA St Petersburg
SKA St. Petersburg forward Alexander Barabanov signs a one-year deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Peter KovalevTASS via Getty Images)

Internationally, Barabanov has had just as much success as he did playing with his pro and junior teams. His accolades include; a top-three player for Russia at the U-18 World Junior Championship in 2011-12, a bronze medal at the World Junior Championship in 2013-14 where he recorded six points in seven games, an Olympic gold medal with the Olympic Athletes from Russia in 2018 as well as bronze medals at the 2017 and 2019 IIHF World Championship.

Like many players in his situation, Barabanov’s season came to a halt as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. With the season done and his contract coming to an end, the suitors piled up to try and recruit the highly skilled winger. 

Barabanov Plays Like Mikheyev

If fans were excited for Mikheyev, there should be some optimism around Barabanov as he plays a similar game, as well as being represented by the same agent, Dan Milstein.

Projected as a third-line forward — like Mikheyev — Barabanov has great skill and possesses strong offensive instincts as well as an ability to go into the tough areas of the ice while providing a strong presence in front of the net. He has a tenacious attitude and he’s always battling for the puck. This fits the “Kyle Dubas” mold, while always adding an element to play a competitive game. 

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“He’s a very strong winger. Tremendous play-making ability, skill level in tight,” Dubas said according to Sportsnet. “But one of the other things that we like most about him is his ability to make plays under pressure and his ability to win pucks, protect pucks when people come after him, and [he] uses his strength to be able to do that.”

While watching highlights of him, what stands out the most is his ability to get around defenders and his opposition so easily. While he may not be the tallest player at 5-foot-10, his 191 pounds combined with his speed allows him to protect the puck and be difficult to be thrown off. His edgework is phenomenal as he has great balance. He likes to use that 10-2 stance when trying to get around the defenders in tight spots and it usually works, as we’ve seen with Mitch Marner. He can be difficult to contain when he’s on the ice and he always turns nothing, into something.

Too Much Depth at Wing?

Barabanov’s signing is another cheap contract for the Maple Leafs to have, considering their constant cap restraints as every contract and every player assessment is just as important as the last. This deal along with their growing pool of wing depth is a good problem to have.

In terms of bottom-six and depth wingers, the Maple Leafs have a long list with Mikheyev, Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson, Kyle Clifford, Pierre Engvall and Denis Malgin. The list gets even longer when you add in Nick Robertson, Yegor Korshkov and Jeremy Bracco to the mix. The abundance of depth the Maple Leafs have is a bonus. 

Kasperi Kapanen Toronto Maple Leafs
With a log jam at the wing position, players such as Kasperi Kapanen could be expendable. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

If Barabanov does pan out the way Mikheyev did before his wrist injury, then it makes a number of players expendable, in which you can move them for an asset on defense. Johnsson and Kapanen’s names have been rumoured for some time now, or they could move a prospect to another team where they can succeed, such as Bracco. 

By going into the international free-agent market, it gives a player overseas a chance to succeed. It’s a low-risk move. If Barabnaov does play well, great, and it leads to another contract. If not, the contract won’t hinder whatsoever. While it creates a log jam at a position for the Maple Leafs, it gives the team a chance to assess what it has, who can excel and who can be a piece to address an important area of need.

The Maple Leafs have discovered some key pieces by moves like this. Barabanov could be one of them. They’ve done their research, scouting him constantly and he has the skill set to possibly be an important piece for the team.