When the Blackhawks season ended on Tuesday night, everyone looked for a scapegoat. It was easy to throw poor Chris Campoli under the bus for his awful turnover in overtime. And Marian Hossa didn’t put up a lot of points, so he was an easy target as well.
But the most readily available target for fans’ death stare has been Brian Campbell.
Is that heat justified? Is Campbell a bad player, or is the issue with his salary? And is there anything the Blackhawks can do about it?
First of all, let me be very clear: Campbell is a good defenseman. He’s a top-four d-man anywhere in the league; it isn’t his fault Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook happen to be in the same city he is for the next few years.
If there’s any issue with Campbell, is should have nothing to do with his play on the ice.
However, his contract has an atomic bomb-feel to it when you realize that, starting in October 2011, he will have five more years with a $7,142,875 cap number with the Chicago Blackhawks.
I’m not going to get on the soapbox about the contract completely, but will remind the naive, perspective-less fans out there that the Blackhawks were a black hole to agents and free agents. Nobody wanted to play for the bottom-dwelling Blackhawks four years ago, so overpaying was Dale Tallon’s only chance to land a premier player.
Also remember the market for defensemen when Campbell signed. Boston signed Zdeno Chara to a deal with a $7.5M cap number two years prior, and Dion Phaneuf signed a deal the same summer as Campbell with a $6.5M cap number. The Blackhawks felt that they needed an elite puck-moving defenseman, and paid to get him.
Let’s also not forget that Nick Leddy, Shawn Lalonde and Brian Connelly weren’t factors in the organization when Campbell signed. There weren’t in-house options that could be developed to play the role Campbell was signed to perform.
[steps off soap box]
However, in the last 18 months the Blackhawks acquired Leddy and have been pleasantly shocked by his development. He has shown all the signs of having the potential to become an elite player in the mold of the two players he listed as his role models at the draft: Campbell and Keith.
Is Leddy ready to be that top-four defenseman now? Probably not. Is he close? Perhaps. Is his game progressing at an astronomical rate just two years out of high school? Absolutely.
The Blackhawks have also been forced to deal with a blue line that’s not only performing well, but also becoming much more expensive. Keith signed a deal for the rest of his career, Seabrook got paid, and Niklas Hjalmarsson probably got more than he was worth when San Jose threw a stunning offer sheet at him last summer.
Growing salaries for the defensemen around Campbell makes his cap number feel like a tightening noose with every deal that’s signed.
Is Campbell’s deal so big that the Blackhawks will never win another Cup? No. That’s a laughable idea. Indeed, Campbell could play out the rest of his contract and the Hawks could – and will – be a contender for the next five years.
But saving money and reallocating funds to some size up front might make sense, especially considering the progress of Leddy.
So how do the Blackhawks make Campbell disappear?
First of all, let’s just go ahead and eliminate a trade. Not only does Campbell have a no-trade clause that allows him the ability to limit the Blackhawks to a list of eight teams, but there just aren’t that many teams willing or able to take on a cap number as big as Campbell’s.
There’s the buyout option, which I offered up as an alternative a couple years ago. But that would stick the Blackhawks with Campbell on the books for 10 more years at roughly $2.381M for a cap number. The immediate savings during his contract years would be substantial – roughly $4.762M per season for the next five years would become available.
But adding another five years of cap commitment for a guy to be playing somewhere else just doesn’t make sense.
There’s one other option that might not be the most conventional, but might make the most sense.
If the Blackhawks put Campbell on waivers, they could make Campbell available to other teams at a 50 percent discount on the salary and zero outgoing players or picks.
The question is simple: is Brian Campbell worth $3,571,437 per for the next five years?
Let’s simply look at a few defensemen making in that neighborhood next year. Is Campbell worth as much as Brad Stuart, Kevin Bieksa, Mike Commodore or Filip Kuba? Considering his skill set, I would confidently say yes.
The risk to the Blackhawks is that another Western Conference competitor would snatch up Campbell and he would haunt Chicago with good play on a rival for the next five years.
The benefits to the Hawks are obvious: free-up over $3.5M in cap space and, perhaps of equal importance, a spot on the blue line for one of the talented youngsters to follow Leddy to the United Center and impact the Blackhawks roster moving forward.
Is this a bold, unconventional route to saving money and opening opportunity? Sure. Is it likely to happen? Probably not. But is a very real option for the Blackhawks moving forward.