Red and Black Hockey
by David Lee on 03/26/09 at 07:21 PM ET
On Wednesday night, two of the three hottest teams in the Eastern conference went head-to-head at the RBC Center. The Senators had won five games in a row and eight of their last ten while the Hurricanes had won four in a row and had gone 7-1-2 in their last ten. It was a tense game, but Carolina won 2-1, extending their overall winning streak to five and their home winning streak to nine. The latter matches a franchise record.
One of the hockey clichés that I despise the most is “you need your best player to be your best player”. There’s no doubt that Eric Staal is Carolina’s best player, and there’s also no doubt that he’s been playing very well lately. However, any number of players could be called Carolina’s “best player of late”. Cam Ward, Rod Brind’Amour, Ray Whitney, Tuomo Ruutu, Eric Staal. Anton Babchuk.
What was that last one?
Babchuk, a 24-year old Ukranian defenseman was the Blackhawks first round draft pick in 2002 and was acquired in January of 2006 in exchange for defenseman Danny Richmond. Since then, “Babs” has had his ups and downs with Carolina including a demotion to Albany, a failure to report there, a subsequent suspension, a year spent in what is now the KHL. His return to training camp this past fall was met with lots of skepticism from the fans, but he earned a roster spot and has surprised even his harshest critics. Lately, he’s been one of the Hurricanes’ best.
When Babchuk was sent to Albany for conditioning back in the 2006-07 season, he refused to go there. He griped that he was not a minor league hockey player and simply never reported. It was at this time when fans turned on him quicker than… um…. something that turns really quickly. He also ticked off Canes GM Jim Rutherford, who had this zinger:
“In his words, he wants to think about it. In our words, Albany has a game in Norfolk tonight and he should be there playing. ... We want him playing, not sitting at home thinking.”
This whole ordeal prompted a post from me where I predicted that both Anton Babchuk and Sergei Samsonov (who had just been put on waivers twice by Les Habitants) would be out of the NHL by the week’s end. Little did I know that they would eventually become teammates in Carolina, both making a big impact.
Here’s a snippet of my post from February 7, 2007
As their riposte, the Canes have suspended Babchuk indefinitely. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see him on the waiver wire before the week is out. Rutherford doesn’t like whiny bitches. The rest of the league will probably take note of his petulance and allow him to clear waivers. Third pairing defensemen are roughly a dime a dozen, and in fairness, he’s only a third pairing guy on a good day. I have a feeling this is Do svidaniya, Anton!
In other news, Sergei Samsonov, who has been a huge bust this season (and last, for that matter) was placed on, and cleared, waivers yesterday. No team in their right mind would pick up the tab on his $3.525M salary for next season and the remainder of the same salary this season. The tiny winger has attended the Alexei Yashin School of inefficient salary/goal ratio and won’t be touched with a 47 1/2 foot pole at that price.
Babchuk will probably be back in the Ukraine by this time next week, and Samsonov might be back to Russia.
I’m just sayin’
If you want the whole thing, here it is, back at the old site.
It’s all kind of strange how it panned out.
At that time, Babs was about as far in the doghouse as he could possibly have been. He had irritated everyone from the front office to the stands to the bars. Just about everyone wanted his head on a pike and his ridiculous car (I think he had a Lamborghini) smashed to pieces. He eventually reported to Albany, checked his ego, and made a return to Carolina. However, his contract expired and they let him go back to Russia. That also did him a lot of good, and he was reacquired by Carolina this past summer and signed to a one-year deal.
Canes fanes weren’t exactly chomping at the bit to embrace Babs, but his play this season has been outstanding. Specifically, over the past 20 games. Since Valentine’s Day, Babchuk has played in all 20 games, scoring 15 (9/6) points. Before the season started, I predicted that he would have just nine (2/7) points on the entire season.
In this time frame, Babs has been playing both ends of the ice with more confidence than we’ve ever seen. Of course success begets confidence, so maybe it’s no surprise. He’s got two game-winning goals in the last five games, and he’s been expecting and even asking for the puck on his tape in late-game situations. His shot from the point is extremely heavy, but in years past his coaches would have to plead with him to shoot the puck more often. They don’t have to beg him any more. He knows that his shot isn’t accurate, but he has learned that good things happen when you put the puck near the net. He also knows that opponents are going to be reluctant to lay down in front of one of his point shots. He also knows that a goalie can’t stop what he can’t see.
I’m not exactly sure what caused this sudden and marked improvement, but I like it. And the best thing is, he’s just 24. As a defenseman, he’s not in the “prime years” yet.
He was only under contract for this season. The Canes already have six NHL defensemen under contract for next season, but I wouldn’t be in the least surprised to see Frantisek Kaberle bought out. And I’m hoping that Babchuk is re-signed.
I never would have imagined that in two years’ time, Babchuk would go from “unproven young defenseman with oodles of potential” to “petulant bitch” to “pariah” to “emerging star”. I like it. I like it a lot.
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David Lee is a restaurant manager with an unused degree in political science. He can be found at Carolina Hurricanes games, Scrabble tournaments and indie-rock shows. Sometimes, all in the same day.