While Mikko Lehtonen was loaned out to Jokerit to start the 2020-21 season, Alexander Barabanov remained in Canada to get acquainted with the city of Toronto. His social media featured many pictures of him in the city with Leafs work out gear, reminding me of Nikita Zaitsev’s eagerness to acclimate to Toronto.
Seeing how Lehtonen performed in his KHL stint, with 17 points in 17 games, made me long for more Barabanov viewings. The justification for him not playing is that Barabanov has been extremely busy over the past 4 seasons. In 16-17 he played 72 regular season and playoff KHL games en route to a Gagarin cup. He also added 16 appearances for Russia internationally. In 17-18 it was 59 KHL games and 23 international, including an Olympic Gold. In 18-19 he played 73 KHL games and 21 international games. Last season SKA was set for another deep playoff run before the season was cut short. I have no doubt he’ll be ready when the NHL season starts, and he’ll have the gas to play every time he’s called upon.
Barabanov’s number is 10
He has played quite a variety of roles for SKA over the past 4 KHL seasons, but Barabanov has managed 10 goals in each of them. In 16-17 SKA’s top 6 included Datsyuk, Kovalchuk, Gusev, Shipachyov, Dadonov, and Plotnikov, perhaps one of the most stacked KHL offences ever. Barabanov had 25 points from the 3rd line, including 13 goals. The following season he was once again stuck behind the same gluttony of forwards, but had 22 points as a 23 year old, still impressive in the 2nd best league in the world.
In 18-19 a top 6 spot opened up for Barabanov, and his ice time jumped from 13:53 to 15:26 per game. He found success on the wing of 6’3″ C Nikolai Prokhorkin, recording 46 points in 58 games. That piqued the interest of NHL teams, and the Leafs have been in pursuit of Barabanov since.
In 19-20 Barabanov remained in SKA’s top 6, but the looming implementation of the KHL’s salary cap decimated the team’s offensive depth. He was centered by Jarno Koskiranta, who didn’t eclipse 20 points in his last 4 KHL seasons. Barabanov still recorded 11 goals and 20 points, solidifying himself as a player who can perform in many different roles.
Much like SKA in 2016-18, the Leafs have a stacked top 6 that Barabanov just isn’t getting a sniff at. Even in the bottom 6 there is stiff competition for wing spots, but Barabanov’s penalty killing ability should keep him in the lineup on a nightly basis. Noticeably, he produced the most in the KHL when paired with a large, skilled center. There’s a good chance he plays significant minutes with Joe Thornton or Jason Spezza, who certainly fit that mold.
Those two silver centers are pass-first players, giving Barabanov much more opportunity to shoot. Over the past 4 KHL seasons the winger has hovered around 12% shooting percentage, which is unsustainable for a majority of players. I’m not suggesting Barabanov is an elite level finisher, but I do think he can maintain a shooting percentage above 10 because he takes so many of his shots from between the faceoff circles. That’s the same reason putting Zach Hyman on a line generally improves on-ice shooting percentage, he puts in work around the net.
Whether he plays on the 3rd or 4th line, Barabanov only needs 1-2 shots per game to contribute 10 goals. Having a more skilled 4th line should allow the Leafs to distribute ice time more evenly, so including special teams time he can comfortably play 10 minutes per game. I’ve written in depth on his play before, and all of his top attributes lend themselves well to penalty killing. High end speed, puck pursuit, active stick, wins puck battles. Like Michael Grabner, that straight line speed could land him some shorthanded breakaway opportunities. He hasn’t recorded a KHL SHG, but it’s another way he can carve out a role on the Leafs.
He also has some pretty impressive offensive instincts:
(2) dylan on Twitter: “alexander barabanov is a fascinating player. he’s got great hands, unbelievable edges, he sees the ice well and he protects the puck very well and is able to spin off defenders using his strength and edges to escape https://t.co/zjavABEK8Q” / Twitter
Looking back at the past 5 Leafs seasons, they have not been able to reliably find a 3rd or 4th liner that chips in 10 goals. I was hopeful Matt Martin would be that guy for $2.5m, but he didn’t even hit 10 in his entire Leafs tenure. Tyler Ennis had 12 in 18-19, outside of that there has been too many depth guys who just couldn’t score. If you enjoyed watching Trevor Moore in the Leafs bottom 6, you’re going to enjoy watching Barabanov.
Barabanov is just 9 months older than Moore, and both are 5’10” wingers who take advantage of their low center of gravity. Barabanov is listed at 192 lbs, he doesn’t get pushed around in the KHL. Moore was notorious for winning battles in the corner with his rear end, you can look forward to more of that with Barabanov. Over the past 4 years Barabanov has averaged 51 games and 13 goals per KHL season, even with the step up in competition 10 goals seems a reasonable target for him in his first NHL season.