Players unsure of their status in the changing landscape of the NHL are being proactive in locking up a job for next season and Brandon Kozun is an example of that, as the winger has signed a deal with Jokerit of the KHL.
The former Los Angeles Kings draft pick had four points(2 goals and 2 assists) in 20 games for the Maple Leafs and 11 points(5 goals and six assists) for the AHL Toronto Marlies, but was a restricted free agent this summer and may have not received a qualifying offer from Toronto in a summer of expected organizational transition.
The 25-year-old was the surprise of Leafs training camp last September, making the club based on his speed, special teams ability and skills, but never fully recovered from a high ankle sprain suffered against the Detroit Red Wings in mid-October.
Kozun is the likely replacement for Steve Moses, who scored 36 goals with Jokerit and signed with the Nashville Predators. NHL clubs are giving undersized skilled players playing in Europe like Moses and Derek Ryan(who led the SHL in scoring and signed with Carolina) a shot in the NHL, so it is possible that the speedy winger is hoping to put up good numbers in Finland and make a return to North America next year.
From @kozy15 - "This is a good opportunity, I plan to come back next yr, playing fulltime in NHL still my dream. Worked for Moses." #TMLtalk
Kozun is the third player who played in the Leafs organization last season to sign with a European based club, joining veteran journeyman Joakim Lindstrom (CSKA St. Petersburg of the KHL) and former Toronto second round pick Brad Ross(Iserlohn Roosters of the German League).
The Leafs may be adding another undrafted KHL product to the fold, as reports out of Russia indicate that CSKA Moscow defenseman Nikita Zaitsev will sign with Toronto.
Sport-Express reports D Nikita Zaitsev will sign with the #Leafs. Zaitsev previously said he'd stay in the #KHL for one more year
According to Hockeybuzz's Bill Meltzer, the Philadelphia Flyers and Buffalo Sabres were interested in the right-hand shooting blueliner, who scored 12 goals and 20 assists in his sixth season in the KHL, but that Zaitsev would remain in Russia for another season before taking a shot in North America.
Mark Gandler, who represents Zaitsev, said the defenseman has not signed with Toronto but did not deny that talks had taken place with the Leafs, but that an agreement would have to take effect after his contractual obligations to CSKA Moscow are completed in 2016.
"As soon as [Zaitsev's] deal [with CSKA] is up, we'll be looking at the opportunities." Gandler said to Russian reporter Fedor Fedin.
Based on his age, international experience, puck moving skills and the expected vacancies on the Leafs blueline with potential trades of Dion Phaneuf, Jake Gardiner and Roman Polak this season.
If these reports are accurate, this would be the second free agent signed out of the KHL by the Leafs. The club signed winger Nikita Soshnikov to a three-year entry-level deal in March.
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