General manager Kyle Dubas says the Toronto Maple Leafs have been eyeing Russian right winger Alexander Barabanov for years.
On Tuesday, the Leafs got their wish, signing the 25-year-old to a one-year, entry-level contract through the 2020-21 season.
"We've been talking about Alex and watching him and kind of breaking down his game for a couple of years. I think he would fit with what we want to do. Not only with his talent level, his ability to make plays, but also, he's not tall, but he's very strong and competitive," Dubas said while making an appearance on TSN 1050's Overdrive Tuesday evening.
Barabanov scored 11 goals and added nine assists over 43 games with St. Petersburg SKA of the KHL this season, his seventh year with the club. He also won a gold medal with the Olympic Athletes from Russia at the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and bronze medals at the 2014 world juniors plus the 2017 and 2019 world hockey championships.
Dubas said a major factor in convincing Barabanov to join the Maple Leafs was the advice of senior director of player evaluation Jim Paliafito.
"It's been a process over the last couple of seasons. Just getting to know him. Jim has really driven that process for us in terms of building a trust and building a relationship with Alex and his wife," explained Dubas. "When it came down to the actual decision, Jim Paliafito's work was massive in us being the place he elected to sign and begin his North American career."
As many know, the Maple Leafs don't have much wiggle room when it comes to salary cap space due to the fact star forwards Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander are locked into long and expensive contracts, all signed within the last couple years.
Despite some issues with the injury bug, Dubas said he's happy with how all four players have produced this season and admits it's on him to fill out the rest of the roster.
"All of them have produced at a high level. I think that [we] have a lot of belief in those four players. I think it's the same principle that we had at the beginning of the year, which is it's on me to deliver with the rest and to find a way to build the remainder of the roster that have our group move ahead," he said.
Toronto has had an up-and-down season to this point, sitting in the third playoff spot in the Atlantic Division with 81 points through 70 games. The Florida Panthers were three points behind with a game in hand over the Leafs when the NHL was suspended March 12 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I know that looking at the inconsistency, to put it probably favourably, that we went through during the year, I can understand why people would have their doubts," said Dubas. "But, I thought we showed a lot of very good things. We had a number of nights where we frankly embarrassed ourselves...The thing that I liked was every time we were in a spot like that we didn't, even with the noise kind of growing and the doubts increasing, we would always find a way to push back.
"Any time we were in a spot with our backs against the wall, especially against a high quality opponent, we would find a way to battle back and play some of our best hockey."
Dubas said having to go through these ups and downs is a positive thing and the suspension to the season is giving his team an opportunity to mull things over.
"The pause in the season will give us a chance to reflect and continue to stay at work and building and developing where we want to go with our program," said Dubas.
Dubas also said he's excited to get back to playing and seeing what Sheldon Keefe can continue to build. The 39-year-old first-year NHL head coach replaced Mike Babcock on November 20 and never got a chance to run a training camp with his new team.
"For me and for our organization it's exciting to know that whenever we get back and rolling, it's going to present Sheldon a chance to really institute the foundation that we're going to want here and that he's so capable of providing that can lead us deep into the future."