An official signing may not come until early July, but Carolina Hurricanes
General Manager Jim Rutherford said Wednesday that he expects defenseman Anton Babchuk
to return to the team for the 2010-11 season.
That belief comes from positive talks between the team and the restricted free agent, who spent this season in the KHL in Russia 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," Rutherford told the Hurricanes' Web site. "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 he is expecting to sign Babchuk to a one-year contract, which would make the defenseman a restricted free agent in the summer of 2011 -- but this time, 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 expect big things from the 6-foot-5, 212-pound Babchuk, who turned 26 on May 6. While scouting a player in the KHL can be somewhat tricky, the 'Canes say reports and video of his performance this past season have been encouraging.
"He had a good year there," Rutherford said. "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 during several past disagreements, beginning with the defenseman's refusal to accept an assignment to Albany of the American Hockey League in 2007 and continuing through two 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," Rutherford said. "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."
Rutherford feels 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," he said. "What's the use in looking back?"
Rutherford said in April that Babchuk's status would be a determining factor in any 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 this fall.
Assuming Babchuk returns, he would likely join Tim Gleason
, Joni Pitkanen
and rookie Jamie McBain
as a top four. Rutherford said 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 the remaining 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.