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Anton Babchuk - Enigma or Pariah?

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Carolina Hurricanes defenseman, Anton Babchuk, recently joined the group of  players who have annoyed general manager Jim Rutherford during contract negotiations.  The Canes reportedly qualified Babchuk with an offer of a million dollars last week, but Babchuk's agent informed the team that his client wanted a raise to come back to Raleigh. 

Unlike Tuomo Ruutu, the Ukraine native does not have arbitration rights and has to rely strictly upon the Hurricanes need of his services.  Why doesn't the youngster have arbitration rights?  Poor decision making during the 2006-07 season.

In February of 2007, the Hurricanes were caught with too many defensemen, (10),  when they activated Frank Kaberle off of the injured reserve.  Management was left with no choice but to assign Babchuk to Albany because they were one man over the roster limit and Babchuk was the only blueliner who had a two-way contract.  But the disgruntled player initially refused to go to Albany and was then suspended by the team.  

In Babchuk's mind, he had a good reason why he shouldn't be demoted.  He was playing better than other defensemen David Tanabe and Andrew Hutchinson.  Regardless, he signed that two-way contract and he should have followed orders. 

After the suspension, he realized the error of his ways and finally reported to the AHL affiliate a few days late.   But the defenseman apparently held a grudge about the incident and the following season he decided to stay in Europe and play in the KHL.  (The Hurricanes were not happy with him either).  Since he lost that year of eligibilty, the decision to stay overseas is costing him a chance at a bigger payday and salary arbitration this summer. 

Babchuk would undoubtedly get a healthy pay increase if he went to arbitration.  His total of 16 goals was fourth best among all NHL defensemen.  He had the best plus/ minus among his peers, (blueliners), on the team and he was a potent weapon to be contended with on the powerplay.  But he went from being a hero, after scoring the game-winning goal against Pittsburgh when the Canes clinched a playoff spot, to being a goat, as he was turned inside out while trying to play defense during the playoffs.  

While some in the media have blasted the youngster, calling him a "train wreck in his own end", his inconsistencies are not that much different than other young NHL defensemen.   He needs more experience.  It's easy for the media to throw him under the bus because he certainly is not the most exciting interview in the Carolina dressing room.  But I can tell you this, Babchuk wants to be here.

I had the opportunity to ask him a couple of questions earlier this season and this is a brief transcript of it:  The audio follows.

Canes Country-  Anton, can you tell me the primary differences for you,  between playing in the KHL and playing in the NHL?

Babchuk- The best players play here in this league.  The size of the hockey rink is different.  There is more contact here and the speed is faster here and more shots on the net.  That is the difference. 

Canes Country-    At the end of the year last year, did you decide that you wanted to come back here to play or did the Hurricanes contact you?  How did that all work?

Babchuk-  I asked my agent to contact the management here and ask the management.  And they decide to sign me.  I would like to come here to play.  

Anton Babchuk audio

No one has ever questioned the defenseman's work ethic.  He lost some weight from the last time he was here and has stayed after practice repeatedly to work on his shot, usually with coach Kevin McCarthy.   Obviously, the extra work has paid off.  But now the Hurricanes have to decide whether it is worth it to offer the prospect a slight pay increase and try to bring him back for another year, or go in another direction completely.  Can they sign a better defenseman elsewhere for the same amount of money?

Babchuk needs to make up his mind if he wants to continue to play in the NHL, where the best players are, or return to hockey obscurity in the KHL.  It could be a career changing summer for him.

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more about Babchuk-

Canes Country readers give the defenseman a grade of B

Cory calls Babchuk, Raleigh's own "Big Unit"