Campbell a huge factor in Hawks cap crisis

Brian Campbell may be the smartest man in hockey.

It wasn’t too long ago that Campbell himself was a highly coveted free agent whose skills as a puck-moving defenseman were in demand by several organizations around the league. After spending most of his career early on with the Buffalo Sabres, indications were that Campbell had interest in testing the open market in July 2008 when he was scheduled to become a free agent. Opting not to take a chance on losing Campbell for nothing, the Sabres decided to trade him to the San Jose Sharks for the remainder of the 2007-08 season. San Jose became the favorite to resign Campbell after they were bounced from the playoffs by the Dallas Stars, but Campbell instead opted to sign a deal with the rebuilding Chicago Blackhawks for just over $7 million a season.

While Campbell helped the Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup in only his second season with the club, his giant salary and cap hit are coming back to haunt the team in a big way. And there’s not a lot that Chicago can do about it. Why? Because Campbell made sure that there was a no-trade clause thrown into the contract with that hefty salary.

It’s a well-known fact that Chicago is currently in dire straights with their salary cap situation. The team needs at least one more forward and one more defenseman to adequately  round out their roster, but the team is already over the salary cap by about $400,000. And before the Blackhawks can look into signing two more players, they need to take care of another very urgent, pressing matter – goaltender Antti Niemi.

Niemi, who only made $800,000 last season, overtook the starting goaltender job from Cristobal Huet about halfway through last season and never looked back until he hoisted the cup in June. Niemi is scheduled to meet with the Blackhawks for a salary arbitration meeting tomorrow which will likely give the 26-year-old goaltender a significant raise. Some are speculating that Niemi could be awarded as little as $2 million a season or as much as $4 million a season during the arbitration hearing tomorrow. Regardless, the arbitration award will continue to put Chicago further over the salary cap.

Chicago always has the option of walking away from the Niemi award, which would probably be a big mistake. Unfortunately, it’s a numbers game at this point as the Blackhawks try to dump the water overboard to help keep the ship from sinking. The problem is that the Blackhawks have two very hefty dead-weight contracts to contend with. The first belongs to Campbell with his $7 million cap hit. But Chicago backed themselves into a wall when they agreed to the no-trade clause in the contract. Sure, Campbell could waive his no-trade clause, but he will most likely do that only for a select group of teams – most of which would be reluctant to bring on his $7 million a season cap hit. Needless to say, Chicago is stuck with Campbell.

The second contract belongs to goaltender Cristobal Huet. The former Montreal Canadiens goaltender came over the same summer as Brian Campbell when Chicago offered him a $5.625 million per season contract. However, Huet found himself on the bench more often than not during his first season with the Blackhawks as veteran netminder Nikolai Khabibulin consistently  outplayed Huet. This past year the starting job was Huet’s to lose, which he managed to do  with ease to Niemi, who officially took over the starting job about halfway through the season. Now Chicago is pretty much stuck with an overpaid backup goaltender for another two seasons with no chance of a trade because no team wants to take on that type of salary for a career underachiever.

The Chicago Blackhawks have some very touch decisions to make, and with Niemi’s arbitration hearing coming up tomorrow, those decisions are quite imminent. Chicago will have a better idea of their predicament after the arbitration hearing with Niemi tomorrow. There is a very real possibility that Chicago will decide not to honor the arbitrator’s decision and instead opt to walk away from the contract. In that case, Niemi will likely sign with another team in the next day or two because young goaltenders with Stanley Cup rings are hot commodities right now. Rumors place San Jose and Philadelphia as the front-runners for Niemi should Chicago choose not to sign him. Don’t count out Tampa Bay or Dallas either.

What organizations all around the NHL right now are beginning to realize is that they can’t overpay for talent. It’s just part of the rules in a salary cap era. When you overpay for talent you risk getting yourself into a situation similar to that of the Chicago Blackhawks right now. But can you really blame players like Cristobal Huet or Brian Campbell for accepting big paydays? Heck no. If a general manager is willing to offer that type of contract, then why not take it and cash in while you can? Besides, the team got a championship ring out of the situation. That has to count for something, right?






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