Anton Babchuk becoming nice piece on Calgary’s blueline

It wasn’t that long ago a hard-shooting first round draft pick arrived in Calgary with impressive offensive credentials, but a reputation for being suspect defensively. He was quiet and reserved, but boy, did he have a cannon from the point.

If that description sounds like early-season acquisition Anton Babchuk, it’s because it is. But it also matches the calling card of another former Flame, No. 2 Al MacInnis. The big difference is about 30 years and a Hall of Fame career.

The similarities are compelling though. Enough so that the Flames should create cap space to sign Babchuk before he’s sure to leave as an unrestricted free agent in July.

MacInnis was drafted 15th overall in 1981 and arrived a year later with a slapshot that became the hardest in the league, but also a penchant for being a pushover in his own end. He was shy and unassuming and often used strictly as a power play specialist. But in time his personality and defensive zone coverage blossomed and he grew into an all-star.

Babchuk was drafted 21st overall by Chicago in 2002 and the Ukrainian arrived a year later with big headlines about his 6-foot-5 frame and booming slapshot. He struggled in his own end and spent much of his first three seasons in the AHL. Babchuk spent two of the past three seasons in Russia, but in between was an impressive 16-goal, 35-point season with Carolina.

When Babchuk arrived in Calgary with Tom Kostopoulos for Ian White in November, it was heralded as a deal for an offensive defenseman who has issues in his own end. But considering White was minus-10 through 16 games and making $3 million as a pending unrestricted free agent, the deal made sense.

Babchuk struggled early with the Flames and had missed assignments and miscues in the defensive end. But in addition to his offensive spark – eight goals and 25 points in his past 45 games – Babchuk has worked with assistant coach Ryan McGill on making simple, low-risk plays behind his own blueline. His positioning has improved immensely and he’s even blocking shots.

In no way, shape or form is this a roundabout way of saying Babchuk is gradually developing into another MacInnis, but he’s trending in that favourable direction.

At $1.4 million, Babchuk is earning his keep as Calgary’s No. 5 defenseman. His improved play in his own end and burgeoning stats will make him an interesting name come July 1. The Flames should lock him up beforehand at a reasonable, but fair rate. He’s easily the best return Calgary received in the Dion Phaneuf trade.

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