RALEIGH — The Carolina Hurricanes' informal practice had ended Tuesday at the RecZone when a familiar face loaded up an old familiar weapon, one that was missing last season.
Anton Babchuk was blasting one-timers. Bam, bam, bam.
As Sergei Samsonov served up passes and Babchuk fired away from the outside, some of the Canes players paused to watch the 6-foot-5 defenseman. In net was goaltender Justin Pogge for what amounted to "Hurt Locker" hockey duty.
"He's got a pretty heavy shot," Pogge said afterward, smiling. "It's a heavy shot but he did shoot from the blue line."
Babchuk's big shot made him a 16-goal scorer for the Canes in the 2008-2009 regular season. But his offensive productivity fell off dramatically in the 2009 playoffs. So did his confidence.
Babchuk, a restricted free agent after the season, then spurned Carolina's qualifying contract offer and returned to Russia last year.
Many wondered if he would ever play in the NHL again, and if so with the Canes, who still held his rights.
But Babchuk is back, signed to a one-year contract. An All-Star for Avangard Omsk of the Kontinental Hockey League last season, he's married and the father of a 2-month-old baby boy. He also says he has a more mature game, that the year away has made him a better, more seasoned player.
"You never know what will happen," he said Tuesday. "I never cut myself, mentally, from this organization because I knew they had my rights. If both sides could agree, I wanted to be back.
"I really wanted to be back, to be honest. I've dreamed of the NHL since I was a kid. It's the best league in the world, and if you're a hockey player you want to try to be one of the best."
Before last season, Canes general manager Jim Rutherford predicted the team would miss Babchuk's goals. Babchuk also had 19 assists in 2008-2009 and his 35 points was second only to Joe Corvo's 38 among the Canes' defensemen.
But in the playoffs, the New Jersey Devils took away the power-play shot. Babchuk made a few defensive errors, showed some indecisiveness and was a healthy scratch a few times, closing with no goals and one assist in 13 games.
Did the frustrations of the playoffs leave a bad taste in his mouth?
"Not at all," Babchuk said. "Whatever's past is past. You can't look back."
Babchuk and the Canes had parted once before, and not on good terms. In February 2007, he initially refused a reassignment to the American Hockey League and was briefly suspended by Carolina.
Babchuk played in Russia the next season, then returned to the Canes. But he had surrendered his arbitration rights for contract negotiations, causing the stalemate after the 2008-2009 season.
Last season, Babchuk had nine goals and 22 points in 49 games for Avangard Omsk. In his first practice in Russia, he smashed the glass with a hard, wayward shot - the big boomer.
Babchuk, 26, said he enjoyed the up-tempo style of the KHL, saying he felt it made him a better skater. The Kiev, Ukraine, native said having more playmakers on the ice made him a better defender.
And Babchuk could have stayed put. He could have made a good living in the KHL.
"But I wanted back and management here wanted me back," he said.
In May, Babchuk and his agent, Jay Grossman, came to Raleigh. They dined with Rutherford and coach Paul Maurice and an agreement was struck on July 1: a one-year, $1.4 million contract.
"It was a good meal," Babchuk said. "We put all the issues in the past. It was agreed we had nothing to look back to. We will only look forward."
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