In a summer when more and more players are heading abroad, Anton Babchuk has bucked the trend once again.
The big defenseman from the Ukraine was one of six new arrivals at the RecZone on Tuesday, joining forward Nick Dodge, fellow blueliners Brett Bellemore and Jay Harrison and goaltenders Mike Murphy and Justin Pogge. This season will mark the second time that the 6-foot-5 Babchuk has returned to the Hurricanes organization following an unsuccessful contract negotiation that led him back to Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League.
“I always wanted to play here in the NHL,” said Babchuk, who agreed to a one-year deal on July 1 that will carry him into his first crack at unrestricted free agency next summer. “When there was an option this summer, I wanted to come.”
In order to do so, Babchuk first had to make sure that he was wanted. In addition to the two years spent with Omsk of the KHL on either side of his 16-goal season with the Canes in 2008-09, he clashed with the organization after refusing a minor-league assignment in 2007.
Those differences of opinion were discussed at a face-to-face meeting in Raleigh involving Babchuk, his agent, Hurricanes General Manager Jim Rutherford and Head Coach Paul Maurice in May, where it was determined that bygones would be bygones.
“I wanted to make sure there were no issues from the past,” recalled Babchuk, now 26 and a new father, of that meeting. “We had a good meal and said that everything was behind us.”
As fate would have it, Babchuk will be going right back to Russia in early October when the Hurricanes face off against SKA St. Petersburg in an exhibition game. That club has been leading the way when it comes to attracting NHL talent, with longtime San Jose goaltender Evgeni Nabokov and former Atlanta and Buffalo winger Maxim Afinogenov making the jump this off-season. They join the likes of Alexei Yashin, Sergei Zubov and Andrei Zyuzin on the SKA roster.
Babchuk, who looks to be leaner despite the fact that he reports no change to his official playing weight, says that the speed of the game in the KHL is not much different than in the NHL, but there are other differences.
“It’s maybe not as physical because of the wider ice,” he said. “Also there aren’t guys who are there just to forecheck or anything like that. Every line is trying to score goals.”
Babchuk did some of that himself, leading all Omsk defensemen with nine goals, 22 points, four power-play goals, two game-winning goals and a +17 plus/minus rating over 49 games in the shorter Russian season. If he can carry that over, he'll again be a significant threat in an already offense-minded defensive corps in Carolina.