The Toronto Maple Leafs arguably won the off-season before it even started when they signed two KHL superstars.
Sure, I can understand the hype around Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds or T.J. Brodie as being big-name UFA signings that will help the Toronto Maple Leafs next season, but we really should be giving more time to Barabanov and Lehtonen. Although neither player has played the North American game, they’re both only making $925K and are veterans to professional hockey.
Both players are 26-years-old and have been incredibly successful in their own right. Just like how the team brought in Ilya Mikheyev last season, they hope that both Lehtonen and Barabanov will provide a similar output for such a low price-tag.
Toronto Maple Leafs and the KHL
With a contract worth less than $1M for one year, there’s only upside for these deals. Either both players make an impact on the line-up and out-perform their contracts immensely, or it’s a wash. It’s not like the Toronto Maple Leafs put all of their chips into the middle of the table with these players. They’re depth additions, with nothing but benefits.
Let’s look back at Mikheyev for a second. When he joined the team, everyone hoped that he could be a top-nine forward who would chip in a few goals. Although an injury cut his season short, in the limited 39 games he played, he scored eight goals and provided 23 points. Those numbers had him on pace for a 17 goal, 48 point performance in a full 82-game schedule, which is way more than many expected from an overseas player making $925K.
Those numbers are very similar to someone like Andreas Johnsson, who earned a $3.4M contract, so just from that comparison, the Toronto Maple Leafs were getting roughly $2.5M in value.
The Toronto Maple Leafs needed to upgrade their defense and even without talking about Lehtonen, they’ve already done that. T.J. Brodie is a stud top-pairing defenseman, Rasmus Sandin is one year older and will only improve and Zach Bogosian is a great depth addition. Therefore, anything that Lehtonen can provide is gravy and by the way he’s playing in the KHL right now, he’s going to be the gravy on a tasty poutine.
Lehtonen has a strong two-way game, but it’s his puck-moving and skating that is elite. He’s a left-handed shot, but has no problem playing the right-side, which makes him even more valuable. Last season, he led the KHL in defensive scoring with 49 points in 60 games and is already on-pace to break those numbers, having scored 16 points in his first 15 games.
For $925K, Lehtonen is going to well out-perform that contract and personally I think he’ll end up pushing Justin Holl down the line-up and will be playing in the top-four by the end of the year. That’s just how talented he is.
Barabanov probably won’t have the same impact that Lehtonen does, but at that $925 price-tag, it’s such a low-risk move. His best offensive season in the KHL was a 17 goal, 46 point campaign in 58 games played, so he does have some pop in his game, but it’s his skating ability and hard-working mentality that made him so attractive to the Toronto Maple Leafs. In fact, roughly 20 teams were interested in him, so the ability to sign him is a huge nod to the organization.
Although the forward position is stacked up front, with a condensed schedule, Barabanov could make some noise. As someone who was highly touted, he’ll get his chance in the line-up, so it’s just a matter of what he does with that opportunity. Even if he doesn’t end up with the same stat-line as his fellow countrymen Mikheyev, it shouldn’t be considered a bad signing because his contract is so low to the salary cap and is only a one-year deal.
Barabanov moved to Toronto already to adjust to the lifestyle, but Lehtonen continues to rip it up in the KHL. With the NHL on pause, try and watch Jokerit play because you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the next superstar on the Leafs blue-line.