It’s a wholly appropriate transition for the veteran defenseman, who played 1,082 games with four teams from 1999-2017: Not only has Campbell been great in the community during his playing days, but his legacy is as much defined by the business of hockey as it was his incredible puck movement, offensive prowess and that time Getty Images published an image of his scrotum. Because who could ever forget that!
His tale is a perfect snapshot of life in the early days of the NHL salary cap era. How one move can affect others. The perils of a huge contract. And, eventually, how all that money in the bank comes full circle.
In 2008, Campbell was a 27-year-old blueliner with the Buffalo Sabres who had established himself as a premiere offensive defenseman who was no slouch in his own zone. (He’d finish fifth for the Norris that season.)
The problem for GM Darcy Regier was that he needed Campbell a pending unrestricted free agent, at a certain number. That’s because the Sabres blinked and matched the Edmonton Oilers’ seven-year, $50-million offer sheet on Thomas Vanek in the previous summer – a panic move made in the wake of being priced out of Danny Briere and Chris Drury, and one where Regier literally said, “[It] was to say to everyone in the National Hockey League, ‘If you want to shop this way, don’t come here.’”
(Of course, the best way to do this is to go after that team’s RFAs at a later date rather than swallow your own bad contract, but we digress…)
So he needed Campbell at $6 million against the cap, and was offering a three-year term. While Soupy wanted to stay in Buffalo, he wasn’t taking that kind of discount. So they traded him to the San Jose Sharks for forward Steve Bernier and a pick that ended up being Tyler Ennis. Bernier would play 17 games in Buffalo.
Campbell made an emphatic free-agent case with the Sharks: 19 points in 20 games, and then seven in 13 playoff games.
He hit the market as, arguably, its greatest prize, and the derby was soon down to four teams: The Sharks, the New York Rangers, the Atlanta Thrashers and the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Blackhawks wanted him something wicked. They needed another puck-moving defenseman, and they wanted to make a huge summer splash with Campbell and Marian Hossa both added to a burgeoning contender. (Hossa would, of course, come later.)
Campbell was reportedly seeking a seven-year deal worth around $52 million. The Thrashers reportedly blew the market up with an offer of nine years and $62 million for him.
Which was nuts, of course, but desperate times call for insane signings. And Campbell was close to accepting that offer before Blackhawks president John McDonough instructed his front office to up their ante to eight years and $56.8 million for Campbell – $7,142,875 against the cap, with no late-contract back-sliding on salary. It ate up 12.6 percent of the team’s cap, and this was during the rookie contracts for Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.
So the Hawks won the Campbell derby and then, two years later, won the Stanley Cup. He played 68 games in 2009-10 due to injury, but was a beast that season: 59.2 percent Corsi rating, 0.56 points per game average and a playoffs-leading plus-11.
But by 2011, the Campbell contract was seen as a boondoggle. He was 32. His production dropped from year-to-year. And it was hard to look at his percentage of the cap while also looking at the stream of Cup-winning talent that had to leave because the Blackhawks were capped out.
Chicago decided to explore options to move him, which was difficult on two fronts: His no-trade protection and the fact that he was making $7.1 million against the cap through 2016. For the second time in his career, it appeared Campbell might have to leave a place he enjoyed playing because of the salary cap: Only instead of the Vanek Panic in Buffalo, it was a team that was suddenly a victim of its own success (and managerial overcompensation of some players).
Enter Dale Tallon. Or, rather, reenter Dale Tallon. The Blackhawks general manager who signed Campbell had been unceremoniously fired in 2009. He bounced to the Florida Panthers as their new GM. He had the need to salary cap space to be gobbled up, and he had the need for a defenseman like Campbell, who in turn had to waive his no-trade clause and agreed to do it for his former boss. So the Panthers traded the empty husk of Rostislav Olesz for Campbell.
It was a move that, arguably, allowed the Blackhawks the necessary flexibility to win their next Cup, perhaps even their third. And it was a move that allowed Campbell to quietly redefine this career, going from explosive offensive weapon to steady, speedy all-around defenseman.
By the time he became the partner for rookie star Aaron Ekblad, Campbell’s transition to elder statesman was complete: What once was one of the NHL’s most scrutinized players as a free-agent prize was now seen as practically underrated.
Funny how that happens when you go from the financial implosion of a Stanley Cup winner to the lower cap ceiling (and lower franchise stakes) of the Florida Panthers …
The contract ran its course, and everyone assumed that Campbell was headed back to Chicago. Five years after he had to go because of the salary cap, they had to bring him back because the salary cap provided so few other options.
Hockey, in the end for Brian Campbell, being a curious business.
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