Babchuk: still learning, or fatally flawed?

Babchuk had spectacular moments in his last season with the Canes. His scoring ability is undeniable: 16 G, 19 A in 08-09. He scored in the clutch: 4 GW goals. In the KHL this year, Babchuk kept scoring. He made the All-Star team and had a goal and an assist in the All-Star game.

With all the talk of Babchuk as a defensive liability, he had the second highest +/- on the team in 08-09 at +13 (behind Staal's +15 and ahead of Pitkanen's +11). But that's just because he scores so much, right? Well, as it turns out, probably not. I'll get to that in a minute.

The playoffs in 08-09 seemed to be Babchuk's undoing. He scored only one assist and the +/- sank to -5. But on a closer look, Babchuk wasn't the only Canes' player who struggled. It's easy to forget that Brand'Amour, Cole and Siedenberg were also -5, Corvo was -7, and Ray Whitney -9. Gleason was -2, and Ruutu, Jokinen and Staal -3. That's an awful lot of players on the minus side and it looks as though Babchuk was around the mean for players on the minus side. He wasn't necessarily the oversized anchor that dragged the team under. Was he seen as such a disaster because his -5 was an 18 pt swing from +13? But then Staal's -3 was also an 18-pt swing in the wrong direction.

The collective numbers suggest the opposition figured out how to deal with the Canes--not that Babchuk's collapse wrecked the Canes' playoff chances.

Babchuk gets knocked for having no idea where his booming shot will end up. Oddly, in 08-09, when we mostly formed that opinion, Babchuk was third on the team in shooting percentage among regulars (12.6%), trailing only Cullen (15.8) and Ruutu (13.7). Among defensemen, Corvo hit 6.6% of his shots and Pitkanen 4.8%. If I hadn't read so many times that Babchuk has no idea where his shot might end up, I'd swear the data says that Babchuk should shoot much more, and Corvo and Pitkanen less.

Is the data some sort of weird statistical illusion? Or could Babchuk be better than everybody thinks?

Looking back, I think Babchuk's shot is so powerful that we tend to remember every miss about as well as every goal. When most people miss, it's not worth remembering. When Babchuk misses, somebody hits the ice or the puck hits the boards like an RPG. We think Babchuk's shot is wild because it's hard. His shot seems to be hard and accurate.

And when he's contributing on offense and caught out of defensive position, he's awfully conspicuous at 6'5", trying to get those long legs going in the opposite direction. He's also conspicuous trying to defend against a 2 on 1 break when he's up against speed. He seems indecisive, perhaps because he seems to think his reach is so great that his stick can take one player out and his body the other. As a result, he doesn't succeed in stopping either player.

I have to say when I look at the 08-09 stats, there were not four other defensemen who should have kept Babchuk out of the top four. Corvo was -1 in the 08-09 season. He was -6 with the Canes last year and -4 with the Caps. Just about everybody considers him an excellent offensive defenseman and a competent NHL defender. (That's my opinion.) We tend to consider Babchuk a weak NHL defender with a powerful but inaccurate shot and little else to offer. (That was my opinion until I went back to figure out just how much of a liability Babchuk was in 08-09 and will be this year.)

Whatever adjectives we use to describe them, it's hard to make an objective case that Babchuk is less valuable than Corvo, or that Babchuk's stats are deceiving because his scoring masks a world of defensive lapses. In 08-09, Corvo scored 38 points and was -1. Babchuk scored 35 points and was +13. It can't be that Babchuk's offense masks disastrous defensive play because he didn't have as much offense as Corvo but was 14 pts better on +/-.

Babchuk is not going to make the NHL All-star team. He's never going to be a shut-down defender. His long, thin frame will always get pushed around. He doesn't add the missing grit and hitting. But the Canes got him this year at a bargain price, and I'd be surprised if by season's end there are four other Canes' defensemen who have contributed more to team success.

The most reasonable assessment at this stage is that Babchuk is a competent NHL defender and a dynamic offensive player. When he fails as a defender, you can't miss it. When he's caught out of position, it's as though the Eiffel Tower is trying to get back. When his shot misses, the miss makes a dent in your ear drum and burns a hole in your retina. Could it be that Babchuk's reputation suffers because his shortcomings are even more conspicuous than the goals he scores?

In the 08-09 playoffs, had other teams found a fatal weakness in Babchuk's play, or are his flaws correctable? Even if not correctable, are his flaws things that the Canes can and should compensate for?

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