The Maple Leafs are hot on the trail of Alexander Barabanov.
General manager Kyle Dubas confirmed as much on Tuesday during a conference call with media, describing the 25-year-old as “a playmaking winger who also has the ability to finish at the net.”
Barabanov had 20 points (11 goals and nine assists) in 43 games this past season for SKA St. Petersburg, his fifth full season in the Kontinental Hockey League.
The Leafs reportedly are one of the front-runners in the race to sign Barabanov, along with the Arizona Coyotes. Barabanov’s agent, Dan Milstein — who also represents Leafs forward Ilya Mikheyev — is interviewing NHL clubs interested in Barabanov this week.
“Alex is strong, not tall (5-foot-10, 191 pounds), but he has tremendous playmaking ability, great skill level in tight,” Dubas said. “One of the other things we like most about him is his ability make plays under pressure and his ability to win pucks, protect pucks when people come after him.
“We will continue to pursue him as best we can.”
In the bigger picture, the National Hockey League’s pause on the season because of the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t had a major impact on the Leafs’ ability to go about some of their business, Dubas said, stressing the importance of the ground work done by Jim Paliafito in Europe.
“He has a great read early on who the players are we are probably going to look after,” Dubas said of the Leafs senior director of player evaluation.
“I don’t think the pause has really affected our ability to evaluate and recruit — there’s a change on the recruiting side of it, moving it to a virtual format — but because of the job Jim does, we already have relationships there, so it’s not trying to meet somebody over the phone or meet somebody over a virtual setting, you already have a bit of a relationship.
“There are players that we’re interested in and we’re competing with many other teams to try to (sign them).”
If he had another chance to do it again — and by that we mean a decision made at training camp last fall — Dubas would have given Nick Robertson a longer look.
During the 2019-20 season, Robertson was a second-round pick in a first-round pick’s clothing, leading the Canadian Hockey League with 55 goals for the Peterborough Petes after the Leafs drafted him 53rd last June in Vancouver. Robertson’s remarkable production came after he signed a three-year entry-level contract with the Leafs last September, though he didn’t really get a sniff in camp before the Leafs sent him back to Peterborough. Robertson also performed well with the United States at the 2020 world junior hockey championship.
“Looking back and reflecting on it, I think we probably should have given him more of a look in training camp and probably rewarded him with an exhibition game or two to see how he did there,” Dubas said. “He went back to Peterborough, he had a great attitude and he was an excellent player for them right away.
“I know the goal-scoring was prolific, but the part his game that we really came to admire during the season was his play on the defensive side and especially on the penalty kill, his ability to win the puck back and then tear down the ice and produce chances.”
Robertson won’t be eligible to play for the Toronto Marlies next season, so it’s another year in junior or a spot with the Leafs.
At the least, one would expect the driven Robertson to put himself in camp in a position to get an audition to start the season in Toronto.
“It’s disappointing that he won’t be able to see how far he could have run it up in regard to chasing 60 goals, but he is one of the more focused and hard-working prospects I have seen in my time in hockey,” Dubas said. “He knows the areas he needs to continue to work on, he has a great read on that. I think come training camp, we will give him every opportunity to potentially make the team and put the ball into his court and see what he can do in the fall, we hope.”
The NHL doesn’t want to compromise the integrity of the Stanley Cup and when (or how) it would be awarded if the 2020 playoffs are contested at some point.
Dubas falls in line with the NHL’s stance.
“It’s always something that has been revered in hockey,” Dubas said. “Keeping the integrity of the tournament style that is there now is important.
“(But) I have no idea what an abbreviated scenario would look like or how it would unfold. These are unprecedented times and I am sure the league is looking at everything possible to move it ahead once we are medically able to do so.
“For me to guess on what that would look like would be a little bit reckless on my end because it’s not at the front of our mind right now and not probably with the league either.
“I think the focus is on getting the proper read on the situation that can best arm everybody to make decisions as we move ahead and be prepared as best as possible when we are able to resume, whenever that may be.”
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