John Ferguson has gone back to his St. Louis roots to find a brainy and brawny defenceman to help the Maple Leafs.
A club official confirmed late last night that the Leafs have signed free agent Alexander Khavanov, squeezed out of Missouri by a glut of defencemen on the Blues, but with four years of National Hockey League experience, a catch for a Toronto team that needed inexpensive veterans to stay under their $39-million salary cap.
The 33-year-old, who will make $1.25 million US on a one-year deal, will fill some of the duties of the departed Brian Leetch, that of an offensive defenceman and power play specialist. Khavanov had a career-high 33 points in 2002-03.
The Moscow-born Khavanov (pronounced Ka-VAN-ov) was a Ferguson project when the Toronto general manager was vice-president and director of hockey operations for the Blues. Khavanov was picked 232nd overall in 1999 when he was well into his 20s, brought over from Moscow Dynamo a couple of years later and was able to jump right into the St. Louis lineup.
The left-shooting Khavanov was considered one of the club's best skaters, a sometimes errant passer, but capable of playing both sides of the rink and holding his own at 6-foot-2, 205 pounds. During the lockout he was almost idle, playing a few games for his one-time club team in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Off the ice, he's a whiz at mathematics and literature, has designs on being a sports columnist and writes an online opinion column for the NHL's Russian web site.
Khavanov was under the radar this week as Ferguson talked to agents for centre Eric Lindros and right winger Anson Carter. Ferguson was asked if he were flirting with trouble by dabbling with Lindros, on the heels of signing Jason Allison, another player with past health issues.
The Leafs already have been plagued by the health issues of Owen Nolan's knee, Ed Belfour's back and Alex Mogilny's hip. Nolan is in the middle of a grievance procedure that could cost the Leafs millions, but Allison's time off the past couple of years actually made it easier for the Leafs to sign him last week to a low base salary.
"There is a certain assumption of risk," Ferguson said earlier yesterday. "But (in Allison's case) we like the potential reward."
Ferguson said talks with both Lindros and Carter are ongoing. As of last night, no Leafs who were given qualifying offers at the end of July told the GM of their decision.
The Lindros rumour mill was in overdrive around town yesterday, but as has been the case since 1991 when he refused to play for the Quebec Nordiques in hopes of one day landing with his favourite boyhood Leafs, there was no deal.
Ferguson has also promised his Toronto Marlies farmhands will get a fair shot at NHL positions at camp. Leafs' defence prospect Jay Harrison was asked earlier yesterday about free agents making it harder for the kids next month. Harrison, Carlo Colaiacovo, Brendan Bell, Ian White, Pierre Hedin and Staffan Kronwall are among those trying to impress Ferguson.
"To be honest, it wouldn't break my hopes if they brought in one more or 10 more free agent defencemen," Harrison said. "I want to prove to them I can play, that I've progressed or that I can be a call-up. In the new (NHL) workplace, you have to develop from within. Teams that have done well in the past do that. There's a lot more on the line today."