Although an official signing may not come until early July, Hurricanes General Manager Jim Rutherford said that he is expecting defenseman Anton Babchuk to return to the team next season.
That belief comes from continually positive talks between the team and the restricted free agent, who spent last season in the Russian league but is looking for a return to the NHL.
“Just based on the talks that I’ve had with (agent) Jay Grossman and Anton, I feel very confident,” said Rutherford. “Both sides agree on him playing here, and I feel we’ll get it done. He’s penciled in with a little darker lead today than a month ago.”
Rutherford said that he is expecting to sign Babchuk to another one-year contract, which would again make the player a restricted free agent in the summer of 2011. However, the difference between that scenario and the one the two sides have faced in previous off-seasons is that Babchuk would have more leverage in the form of arbitration rights.
“Then he’s where he’s always wanted to get to,” Rutherford said. “If he throws another year at us like he did last time he was here with 16 goals, he will be in for a big raise. Either he will tell us that or an arbitrator will tell us that.”
The Canes still expect big things from the 6-foot-5, 212-pound Babchuk, who celebrated his 26th birthday on May 6. While scouting a player in the Russian league can be somewhat tricky, reports and video of his performance this past season have been encouraging.
“He had a good year there,” said Rutherford. “He’s really coming into his best years, and the last year he was here he was one of the reasons we made the good run at the end of the season and got into the playoffs. There’s a very big upside to Anton Babchuk.”
The Hurricanes consider that upside to be so great that they have been reluctant to trade him in the midst of several past disagreements, beginning with the player’s refusal to accept an assignment to Albany of the American Hockey League in 2007 and continuing through two separate stints in Russia.
“We took a pretty strong position on where he was in his contract and his career, and then he asked to be traded,” said Rutherford. “We talked trade with some teams and none of that got resolved, but now we’re at the point where we have a little bit of flexibility to bring him back into our team.”
According to the general manager, previous failures to see eye-to-eye have had no bearing on the current negotiations and should not be a problem moving forward.
“It’s behind us,” said Rutherford. “What’s the use in looking back?”
In April, Rutherford said that Babchuk’s status would be a determining factor in what further steps the team takes to shore up its defense. Talks have apparently gone smoothly enough that the team can now shift some of its focus elsewhere with greater confidence that he will be in the top four on opening night.
At the team’s annual scouting meetings in early June, rounding out the blue line behind Tim Gleason, Joni Pitkanen, Jamie McBain and Babchuk will be one of many discussions. Rutherford said that he would not rule out any of the players who finished the season as Hurricanes, including unrestricted free agents Jay Harrison and Brian Pothier and restricted free agents Brett Carson and Alexandre Picard, to fill those spots.
”We want to be very thorough and walk through that as to who’s available out there that we may have interest in and what everybody’s thoughts are on the guys who were here,” he said.