When you’re hoping to sign a European free agent, there’s no better person for the job than Jim Paliafito, the Maple Leafs’ senior director of player evaluation. Although his name seldom is mentioned outside of hockey circles, he’s one of the key reasons that his employer has a strong team that can and will – one way or another – compete in an age of constraining salary-cap limits.
Paliafito’s job is to watch players, find out about them, track them, engage them, do research on them, and get to know them. He meets them and their families and their agents. He does this work over and over, and he does it well. The Maple Leafs hired the former Saginaw Spirit general manager to join their front office in 2015 as director of player evaluation, and he’s done very well.
Paliafito’s specialty seems to be building relationships with players from the KHL, and he helped the Maple Leafs sign the highly-sought-after young Russian player Nikita Zaitsev. More recently, he was responsible for building relationships with and helping the Maple Leafs sign Ilya Mikheyev prior to the 2019-20 season and Alexander Barabanov and Mikko Lehtonen since the NHL’s regular-season was suspended due to COVID-19.
Zaitsev’s Note: Paliafito Did Everything for Me
In a 2017 Toronto Sun article, Steve Simmons quoted Zaitsev’s agent Dan Milstein as saying: “Jimmy played a huge role in Nikita signing in Toronto. Jimmy found him, identified him, kept in touch with him regularly.”
Zaitsev, who the Maple Leafs signed but who now plays with the Ottawa Senators, praised Paliafito by saying: “He did everything for me. He did a huge job to bring me here. He’s an unbelievable guy,” (from “The Paliafito file: How little-known scout has become big player with Maple Leafs, Steve Simmons, Toronto Sun, 17/10/17).
Paliafito Seldom Missed Mikheyev’s Games
Paliafito also found and got to know Mikheyev. He went to watch him play over and over again in the KHL; and, by doing so, he came to understand the player and his personality. Milstein, who’s also Mikheyev’s agent, spoke about the Paliafito’s work recruiting Mikheyev.
“Every time I was at a game, Jim was at the game. I saw him so much that I thought maybe he’s following me or maybe I’m following him. He was always there. My experience is that other clubs don’t do this, don’t get this involved. They watch. They don’t get to know the person… Jim is the hardest working person in the business, the hardest working person I see everywhere,” (from Steve Simmons “This is just the beginning for Leafs’ winger Ilya Mikheyev,” The Toronto Sun, 10/15/19).
Paliafito Was a Key in Signing Barabanov and Lehtonen
Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas recently reported that a major factor in convincing Barabanov to join the Maple Leafs was Paliafito’s advice, who seems to have worked hard to earn the title senior director of player evaluation.
Dubas noted that the Maple Leafs had been watching the Russian right-winger Barabanov for years, meaning that Paliafito was getting to know him and building a relationship. Therefore, it was no surprise when the team signed the 25-year-old to a one-year, entry-level contract for the 2020-21 season.
Dubas noted: “We’ve been talking about Alex and watching him and kind of breaking down his game for a couple of years. I think he would fit with what we want to do. Not only with his talent level, his ability to make plays, but also, he’s not tall, but he’s very strong and competitive.”
Then, of course, Dubas highlighted the real worker in this scenario by noting: “It’s been a process over the last couple of seasons. Just getting to know him. Jim has really driven that process for us in terms of building a trust and building a relationship with Alex and his wife.”
Dubas added, “When it came down to the actual decision, Jim Paliafito’s work was massive in us being the place he elected to sign and begin his North American career.”
Can you see the pattern here? Mikko Lehtonen was the latest in a long line of European players who signed with the Maple Leafs that Dubas attributes to Paliafito’s diligence and hard work. Once again, it was Paliafito’s ability to make a connection with a young player that helped the team sign Lehtonen.
Building an Ethos of Caring for Players
What does Paliafito do that others don’t? You can get a hint from what key people – for example, Milstein, Dubas, and even Zaitsev – have said about him. He cares enough to build a trusting relationship. He gets to know players and their families. That takes care, and caring seems to be an emerging ethos within the Maple Leafs organization.
On a side note, when you read the stories about Paliafito’s work, writers often use metaphors such as Paliafito “reeled him in.” That’s telling because it suggests, in reference to a player, that they consider them to be fish to be caught.
What Young Foreign Players Need to Be Successful
When I read stories about how the Maple Leafs organization works with young players who arrive from countries like Russia or Finland without speaking much English and who must adapt to a very different culture, two things seem important for that player’s success: One is assessing hockey skills, and the second is creating a comfortable space so a young man can feel he belongs – a home.
The Maple Leafs seem to do that well. It matters that Dubas spent a few days with Mikheyev in a New Jersey hospital after his horrifying injury, surgery and healing. That’s important because, as Dubas’ wife noted, if they were parents of a young man in a similar situation they’d want to know their son was cared for.
Do I think it makes a difference in Mikheyev staying in Toronto? Of course, it does.
That the Maple Leafs value their players will be key to the organization’s success in the future. Their senior director of player evaluation, Jim Paliafito seems to be an important part of that ethos. From my perspective, it’s the right way to run an organization.