I’ll confess I’ve watched the reaction to the Anton Babchuk signing with a bit of bemusement since the Flames re-upped their free agent defender Monday afternoon. There seems to be a school of thought that accepts the deal as reasonable given the current silly FA market, and people believing his ticket is fair value could well be correct that it might not be out of line for what he brings. My problem, however, isn’t so much with the contract per se, but with the inability of the Flames to see the forest for the trees.
First, as Kent and others have repeatedly pointed out, this is a player that has needed significant sheltering to be a functional NHL defenceman 5v5. The Flames were able to achieve that feat most of last season because they could lean on Bouwmeester, Giordano and Regehr to carry the load.
That’s not in the cards for 11/12, so someone like Chris Butler is going to be asked to carry a weight he might not be capable of, and because of that, there’s every chance that we’ll see a trickle down effect on Bouwmeester and Giordano. They’ll be asked to do everything at EV and on the PK, and those are pretty heavy minutes to carry on a team with decent, but not great forwards. Absent a quantum leap by a player that’s been playing major pro hockey of some sort for half a dozen years, they won’t get much help in that department from Babchuk.
Beyond the clear hole that Calgary faces 5v5, the addition of Babchuk does nothing to improve another glaring failure that we’ve seen from this club over the last few seasons. One of my ongoing complaints about Calgary’s defence corps was that despite the significant salaries being spent on a number of them, they possessed a collective inability to win races to pucks, particularly on the PK. I noted with interest that a team that was 4th in shots against overall and 5v5 slid to 13th in shot prevention 4v5, and based on what I witnessed, it was often the case that Calgary featured of a group of defencemen that were too slow to cover the extra ice they faced when down a man.
It’s not much of a secret that for most of last year the only decent skaters on the backend were Giordano and Bouwmeester, with a collection of leadfoots making up the rest of the squad. Regehr’s other talents allowed him to mostly compensate for his skating deficiencies, but even he was found wanting against the better PPs, with Vancouver and Anaheim being particularly adept at exploiting the Flames’ PK units by simply outskating Calgary’s defence to every loose puck.
Anton Babchuk, for good reason, averaged about 30 seconds a game on the PK for Calgary last season. He was about the last option that Brent Sutter opted to use in that scenario, and that’s about the same type of utilization as we saw from Paul Maurice during Babchuk’s last full year in Carolina. His lack of foot speed and agility can be covered 5v5 and on the PP, but on the PK, with the need to retreive pucks in space at a premium, there’s virtually no hope that he’ll be a major contributor.
That inability to help the club do the work that defencemen are ultimately essential for is really at the heart of my objection to keeping Babchuk. His offense on the PP is certainly nice, and on a team with a solid top EV four he’d be a decent option to have around, operating in the way that allows Marc-Andre Bergeron to continue to have a career in the NHL despite some fairly obvious defensive lapses.
The Flames aren’t in that spot. An honest interpretation of their roster reveals two proper top-four defencemen, which by my math is a shortfall of approximately two from the standard requirement, and it’s an indefensible postion for a cap team to find itself in, whatever one might think of the potential for a player like Butler or possibly Brodie. Cory Sarich, who should be a top four contributor, has never really looked up to that task in four seasons with the Flames. I’m not expecting that to change.
My overwhelming sense is that the Flames, having failed to accomplish whatever primary goal they had in unloading Regehr beyond keeping Tanguay employed, simply moved to the next option on their list. It’s at times like these that I often find myself invoking the Politician’s Syllogism. For those unaware, the geniuses behind the British comedy Yes, Prime Minister identified this logical fallcy and laid it bare:
1. We must do something
2. This is something
3. Therefore, we must do this.
My short answer to that approach is no, no you don’t. If inking a player for fairly significant dollars doesn’t fix a major problem, you’re simply filling the roster, and that can be accomplished for a lot less than 2.5M a year. Adding to Calgary’s collection of bottom pairing defenders for that amount just seems like a waste of time and money, and even if there wasn’t a wide array of terrific options left in free agency, simply spending the money because you can is no way to run a franchise. I know that the Flames haven’t operated in this fashion since before the lockout, but being a bit more discerning regarding player expenditure isn’t always bad, and signing Anton Babchuk is a case where that approach might well have been the wisest course.
I don’t doubt that Babchuk can post some pretty boxcar numbers in the right circumstances, and the market for PP defencemen is a bit inflated at the moment to be sure, so it’s entirely possible that his contract isn’t a grievous overpay by that standard. I’ve often called Christian Ehrhoff a faster version of Babchuk on Twitter, and we saw what Terry Pegula’s ego lead him to pay Ehrhoff for the next number of seasons, so maybe Babchuk is just getting the going rate.
That said, what I still can’t figure out is how he’ll make the Flames a markedly better team. If he can’t carry top four minutes, the club will need to hope that Butler and someone else can. That’s not a bet I feel comfortable with, so there’s every chance Calgary has paid real money to a player that will be a peripheral figure in the area where the club needs the most help. I don’t hate the guy, and the contract isn’t the type that will kill a franchise, but if the Calgary Flames were really interested in fixing what’s been ailing them, Anton Babchuk is exactly the sort of player that they should have moved on from.