Brian Campbell may have been one of the most polarizing figures to wear a Blackhawks sweater in the last 15 years, and the remarkable reality is that very little of the discussion had to do with him as a person or player.
Now that he’s been traded, let’s look back at the Brian Campbell Era in Chicago.
To appropriately assess Campbell’s time in Chicago, we need to lay a foundation for where the Blackhawks stood when he arrived. During the 2007-08 season, the Blackhawks finished with 88 points, three points out of the Western Conference playoffs. Of course that season was when Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews finished first and second, respectively, in the Calder Trophy voting.
But the Blackhawks weren’t a championship team back then. They were an organization that hadn’t smelled a realistic chance of competeing in a full decade, and new ownership was trying to change the perception of the team with fans, agents and players around the league.
The best defenseman on the Hawks roster at that point was (and still is) Duncan Keith. But after his third, and best, year in the NHL, he had peaked at 32 points. Campbell was coming off a 62-point, breakout season split between Buffalo and San Jose, and was one of the best power play quarterbacks in the game.
The Blackhawks had very little (read: no) organizational depth on the blue line, especially with puck-moving defensemen; they had a crop including Dustin Byfuglien, Cam Barker and James Wisniewski coming up at that point.
Campbell was exactly what the Blackhawks needed. He was the best at what he did, and the Blackhawks were desperate for his skill set.
Another context we must assess is the free agent market that Campbell was part of.
In the summer of 2008, money was flowing like beer through a United Center urinal. San Jose gave Rob Blake $5M for one year at age 38. Mark Streit received five years and $20.5M and Mike Commodore also received five years and $18.75M. Heck, Brooks Orpik received a six-year, $22.5M deal ($3.75M per) from Pittsburgh after scorching the league for… 11 points.
Players like Mike Green (before becoming a Norris candidate), Brad Stuart and John-Michael Liles were receiving four year deals.
Not as many owners were concerned about, or doing a good job of handling, the salary cap in the summer of 2008. Then Blackhawks GM Dale Tallon had a need to fill, and had to not only compete with the rest of these contracts but also the perception that Chicago couldn’t win games or fill seats.
Campbell signed a seven-year, $57.143M contract.
In his press conference, Campbell told the media that he came to Chicago to win the Stanley Cup. Not to be good, but to win it all. Of course, the bravado was something every free agent brings to a press conference with a new team, especially with the kind of pay day Campbell just received.
But Campbell was right.
During his three seasons, Campbell never averaged less than 22:32 per game on the ice and put up decent numbers (117 points in 215 games). He did miss games in each of the last two seasons, but was consistent when he was on the ice. He was +51 in his three years in Chicago; he’s +53 total in his 11-year career.
Campbell’s game evolved in Chicago as well. As Keith became the Norris Trophy-winning superstar that we know now, Campbell added shot blocking and a more consistent stay-at-home game to his arsenal.
Yet, no matter what he did on the ice, there were fans that held Campbell personally responsible for the departures after the Stanley Cup victory.
Unfortunately for Campbell, no player in today’s NHL is worth $7M per season except a few kids named Crosby, Ovechkin, Stamkos and Toews.
Campbell started his charity, Campbell for Kids, after joining the Blackhawks and raised thousands of dollars for great foundations around the Chicago area. Despite taking shots from the fans because of his salary, he was always honest with the media and up-front about his personal performance. He was a class act who played well for the Blackhawks and, most importantly, backed-up his words and helped the Hawks win the Cup.
Most fans give Rocky Wirtz, John McDonough and Dale Tallon credit for changing the culture in the organization, but Campbell should be seen as a player that took a chance on a young team with a bad reputation and was a key piece of the cultural revolution with the Blackhawks.
Was he overpaid? Sure. But would the Cup have come to Chicago without him wearing the Indian head sweater? Probably not.
Thanks for your service, 51. We’ll miss you (but not your cap number).