Chicago Blackhawks fans can breathe easy right now. Their team addressed a dire need Friday and did so with minimal risk, signing Brian Campbell to a one-year deal carrying a $1.5-million cap hit and $750,000 in performance bonuses. As for the future? Well, GM Stan Bowman just has to take this one year by year. Last summer the Hawks, squeezed up against the salary cap for the umpteenth year in a row, had to let blueliner Johnny Oduya walk as an unrestricted free agent. Oduya would never have been mistaken for a Norris Trophy candidate but was a highly capable and experienced second-pair blueliner. He and Niklas Hjalmarsson formed such a strong tandem that coach Joel Quenneville could almost roll with just four defensemen, the other two being Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, in the playoffs. Oduya won Cups with Chicago in 2013 and 2015 and averaged 24:45 of ice time during the 2015 run.
The Hawks hoped they could replace that No. 4 defense slot with some combination of Trevor van Riemdsyk, Erik Gustafsson, Michal Rozsival, Viktor Svedberg and David Rundblad, not to mention the demoted Rob Scuderi. The man they traded for Scuderi, Trevor Daley, never seemed to fit, though Mike Sullivan got the most out of Daley in Pittsburgh. The Hawks' Achilles heel entering the 2016 playoffs was clearly their lack of defensive depth, and it did them in. Van Riemdsyk was shoehorned into top-four duty and played 23-plus minutes in round 1 against the St. Louis Blues.
He was on the ice for seven St. Louis goals 5-on-5 in that seven-game series, which the Blues won. Bowman's off-season shopping list had to start with a top-four blueliner, but it wasn't going to be easy to find an affordable one. Artemi Panarin's bonuses put the cap squeeze on so tight that the Hawks had to deal away Teuvo Teravainen and Andrew Shaw over the past couple weeks. Enter Campbell, the savior, willing to do what Brad Richards did two summers ago and sign at a major discount. Campbell, 37, is clearly putting winning above everything else as he returns to the team with whom he hosted the Cup in 2010. Why not? He just completed an eight-year deal paying him $7.14 million annually. He's set for cash. He joins the fray for just $1.5 million and should slot into Chicago's top four, giving TVR time to develop at a realistic pace on the bottom pair. Campbell has been a strong possession driver throughout his career, too, and that's welcome news for the Hawks.
They finished 19th in 5-on-5 Corsi this season after three straight years in the top seven. Any way we look at this deal on a short term basis, it's great news for the Hawks. What about the future, though? Stalwarts Keith and Seabrook are locked up through 2022-23 and 2023-24, respectively, but are into their early 30s now. Hjalmarsson has three seasons left at a reasonable $4.1-million cap hit. After that, though…the Hawks have to hope (a) Campbell remains ageless and wants to re-sign again for cheap next summer or (b) TVR matures rapidly into top-four guy within the next year. Their prospect pool lacks a surefire high-end NHL blueliner. Ville Pokka and Gustav Forsling have promise but are far from locks, and 2016 second-rounder Chad Krys is years away. So the Hawks should enjoy a season of Campbell – and an elite top four on defense – while they can. This team is hurtling toward a cliff, but Campbell delays the freefall as long as he's in town.
WHAT ADVANCED STATS SAY: Easily the best deal of the day as Brian Campbell took way below market value to sign with Chicago. The allure of winning another Cup with the team is obviously very high for a D-man who could’ve easily made more than $4 million elsewhere. Campbell is the new NHL’s prototype for a stay at home defenseman: one who doesn’t have to actually stay home very often. He gets the puck out quickly and effectively leading to some gaudy possession totals that tilt the ice and his team’s favor for shots and goals. The grit, shot blocking, and points aren’t there – but there simply aren’t many players in this league better at defending than Campbell. Suddenly, Chicago’s defense looks very scary again.
By Dominik Luszczyszyn