The Toronto Maple Leafs continue to bolster the fringes of their depth chart today, coming out the victors in a league-wide sweepstakes for KHL forward Alexander Barabanov. The team announced that they signed the 25-year-old forward to a one-year entry-level contract this morning.
Barabanov is a through-and-through product of the SKA St. Petersburg program, playing his youth hockey through them and going up the MHL (Major Junior) and VHL (Minor League) ladder in his teens and early 20s. He got his first cup of coffee in the KHL in 2013/14, and became a full-time member of the team in 2015/16. Going through his youth numbers, there aren’t a lot of players who crossed the pond to compare him to. The closest we have is likely his 2014/15 season in the MHL, where he had about 1.5 points per game to Lightning Prospect and good AHLer Alexander Volkov’s 0.4, but Volkov was also three years younger. However, Volkov’s final year in the program would only put him a year behind in age, and he still struggled to exceed a point-per-game before coming over, so maybe there is something to use in there. In Barabanov’s only full MHL season, he led the league in goals.
Since then, he’s ridden the line of about half a point per game in most seasons, though most look to his 2018/19 season as the biggest reason for optimism; a 46 point in 58 game performance that brought his talents to a more global spotlight. While we don’t have significant analytical data for the KHL, there are both optimistic and pessimistic signs that came out of that year. On the optimist side, 14 of his 17 goals came at even-strength; as have 52 of his 62 in his KHL career, and his 12% shooting percentage that year was in-line with his career average.
On the other hand, his +34 rating, broken down into 50 on-ice goals for and 16 against, is a significant deviation from the rest of his career Combine that with SKA getting 0.946 (!!!!!!!) goaltending last year, and several teammates having career highs in goals and/or shooting percentage and there’s a reason to be suspicious. Barabanov doubled his career-high in assists that year, most frequently setting up fellow older prospect Andrei Kuzmenko, New Jersey Devils forward Nikita Gusev, Los Angeles Kings forward Nikolai Prokhorkin, and KHL Mainstay Sergei Plotnikov.
Also worrisome is how the points break down against opponents, especially given the fact that his team finished second overall that season. Barabanov scored 11 points in 22 games against teams who finished with a points percentage of at least 0.600, 25 in 37 games against playoff teams, and 19 points in 17 games against non-playoff teams. There is likely an element of earned production there, but also lots of reason to be cautious about expecting him to go back to those numbers.
Barabanov also has experience playing with Russia at the international level, representing them at the U-18’s (2012), World Juniors (2014), World Championships (2017, 2018, 2019), and Olympics (2018). In his representation, Barabanov has won three Bronze medals (one WJC, two WC) and a gold (Olympics).
This is all to say that Barabanov has a resume that intrigues, but doesn’t totally stand out. He spent his junior career on a development path that wasn’t quite the same as those who were being groomed for North America, and he’s spent his KHL career playing middling minutes on a powerhouse, which is about as sheltered as one can get at that level while still having opportunities. That’s not necessarily a knock, but a “don’t get your hopes too high up” – a tweet I liked here was from Leafs fan and site subscriber 67Sound, who suggested to look at this as more of a Nikita Soshnikov signing than an Ilya Mikheyev move; which I tend to agree with.
Alexander Barabanov is a lot of fun to watch. pic.twitter.com/TOBNOGGF09
— Alex Nunn (@aj_ranger) January 22, 2019
Having not watched as much KHL in the past year and change as I’d like to, I decided to defer to the experts on the eye-test side of the game. Leafs GM Kyle Dubas has already described Barabanov as a high-end, competitive playmaker, but it’s literally part of his job to hype up his own player. So I went to KHL insider Igor Eronko of Sport-Express, and KHL English Commentator Andrey Osadchenko to ask for their thoughts:
Eronko had this to say:
The first thing that comes to mind when talking about Barabanov is his skating, and of course his agility and balance. He’s a real beast one-on-one, one of the best in the KHL in terms of that. Very strong on the puck, good in battles due to low centre of gravity. You could think he’s too small, but his frame is NHL level. He can outskate any defenceman on any given moment in the corners or along the boards. I can’t call him a brilliant passer, he’s not a playmaking winger, but he sees the ice quite well and tends to improve the chance with a pass cause his shot is his weak side. He creates a lot with the help of skating and good deking ability. Very disciplined. His work ethis is great, he’s a real self-made man who wants to try himself in the best league out there giving it all he’s got. He would be useful on a PK, he’s sound defensively, never stops. I personally see him as a great 3rd line player, who could occasionally replace someone in top-6 since he reads the game well and helps linemates who aren’t as defensively aware.
Osadchenko wasn’t as glowing, but still relatively positive and is in agreement with Eronko on his probable role:
I think he’s a tough nut with splashes of skill here and there. He goes to the dirty areas, hard to knock off his skates, and has a decent set of hands. If he’s going to make the NHL, I’d say he’s a third-liner, possibly middle-six material. I’d compare him to [former Vancouver Canucks/Manitoba Moose forward] Sergei Shirokov. Their body frames are almost identical. Shirokov is more skilled whereas Barabanov is grittier. He’s behind Ilya Mikheyev; you couldn’t miss Mikheyev when he was on the ice. Players like him stand out in the KHL. You see a guy like Mikheyev and it doesn’t take you long to realize, ‘Oh, this kid’s got a shot at the show’. Barabanov is a hard worker with a splash of skill, not the other way around.
Looking at everything presented to us here; the intriguing but not dominant production, the small stature but strong frame, the playmaking ability and occasional flashes of skill, it’s hard not to think of Barabanov as a replacement for – and, if all goes right, an improvement upon – Trevor Moore, who was moved to the Los Angeles Kings in February in the trade to acquire Jack Campbell and Kyle Clifford. Moore was used in that sort of bottom-six but slideable role with the Leafs, and when you look at his AHL production, it fits in line with the comparables like Shirokov and Volkov that were established earlier. Getting a replacement Moore for free after having to move on from the original seems like good business on Toronto’s end, especially as it helps bolster their relationship with Russian superagent Dan Milstein and the reputation of Jim Paliafito, who has been essential in the team’s recruitment of Russian players over the past several years.
I don’t think there’s a sane way to dislike a signing like this; you have a player who affords you some cap flexibility and has potential upside coming in at under the buriable threshold, replacing a player in his age bracket that you most liked having in the organization. His toolset implies lineup versatility as well. I’m skeptical we’ll ever see him rip things up from a production standpoint given the anomalies in his breakout year, but he doesn’t need to be a Radulov, Gusev, or even a Mikheyev to be a successful pull from the KHL.