Mike Babcock and Lou Lamoriello of the Toronto Maple Leafs spent some time in Russia recently, where they met personally for dinner with Igor Ozhiganov in an early attempt at recruiting the KHL defenseman. The pair had completed a similar visit a year prior to bringing Nikita Zaitsev over, and many believed they were attempting to do the same thing. Now Zaitsev himself has admitted to helping the Maple Leafs recruitment efforts, telling Sovsport (via Andrey Osadchenko) that he was even present at the dinner:
Igor asked my opinion. I told him he should sign with the Leafs. Actually, I was with him at one of the dinners he had with the Leafs representatives. I was even his interpreter. That’s just being a part of the Leafs organization. Not only do you play in the NHL and build your career, but you also help others.
Ozhiganov remains under contract for one more season with CSKA Moscow, but it would be hard for the 24-year old to ignore the advice of a former teammate. Zaitsev was signed to a seven-year, $31.5MM extension after just one season in Toronto, giving him some financial and personal stability as he continues his hockey career. Both players were undrafted because of the relative obscurity they played their youth hockey in, but have turned into capable professional defensemen in recent years.
The NHL and KHL don’t actually have a transfer agreement, but normally respect each other’s contracts. The Maple Leafs are being quite bold by meeting a player under contract still, but will wait to see if Ozhiganov comes over next season to give them another almost free asset. Like Zaitsev, he’d be signing just a one-year entry-level contract if he does and be able to cash in on a good performance right away.