The most surreal aspect of Brian Campbell's return to Chicago as an opponent on Friday night is that it's even happening. His 8-year, $57.1 million contract with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2008 made him, perhaps, the NHL's most unmovable player when also factoring in his no-trade clause.
Yet the Blackhawks found a way to escape that contract, in this case "a way" named former GM Dale Tallon, now with the Florida Panthers and the man who signed him to that contract. Campbell was traded at the draft for Rostislav Olesz.
Since then, Campbell's had an All-Star season and is considered the MVP for the still-surprising Panthers; Olesz is toiling in the AHL after being waived in November.
Perhaps most importantly, the talk of Campbell being an overpaid salary cap albatross has all but disappeared from the conversation.
Well, save for Chicago, where Randy Holt of Rant Sports wrote last week:
Obviously it's easy for us to sit here and say why the Hawks might/do miss Brian Campbell. The team clearly misses his ability to move the puck more than anything, but his all-around game is also missed. The Hawks likely miss Brian Campbell, The Player very much. Brian Campbell, The Contract? Not so much.
So as several Blackhawks return to Chicago on Friday night to face their former team as Panthers, what will be the reaction for Soupy, and has he finally played out of the shadow of that contract?
First, a preview of this type of game from Patrick Kane to Tracey Myers of CSN Chicago:
"We played in Atlanta last year against a lot of guys on our team the year before, and it's almost like it's not a real hockey game," he said. "You're laughing and joking out there. At the same time you want to beat them, too. It's different, but fun."
"It'll be nice to be back in the city, check up on everything,'' Campbell said. "It's always fun playing in that barn. But we need to put some wins together, we've been running below .500 for this stretch. Chicago was good to me, a good place."
Sam Fels of Second City Hockey and NBC Chicago explored the Campbell homecoming issue, and came to this conclusion:
Brian Campbell probably won't be cheered for, and it's thanks to this city's confounding relationship with big-ticket free agents. Pick any sport, and fans in this city just never warm up to anyone making a lot of money. The fact that what a player's salary is should be completely removed from judging a player never comes to the fore here. After all, no one walks into a GM's office with a gun and demands a contract. They're offered one. Who wouldn't sign it?
… Yes, his contract was a burden. But the player himself wasn't. But some people just can't separate the two. I hope there aren't enough of them in the UC tomorrow to drown out those who know better, because Campbell deserves to hear from them more.
It's fair to say that Campbell never lived up to his contract, but with the understanding that such an expectation was ridiculously unfair. (As it was, say, for Chris Drury with the Rangers). His numbers in Chicago were fine, his ice time was considerable and he was a team-best plus-11 during their Stanley Cup championship in 2010.
Which, in the end, is what makes a player overpaid rather than overrated.
Please recall the SI players' poll that listed the top 15 most overrated players in the NHL this season. They have, between them, four Stanley Cup rings, with that paragon of overratedness Scott Gomez owning two. (Vinny Lecavalier and Chris Pronger have the others.)
Campbell isn't mentioned in the same breath as the League's overrated players, if he ever was, because he (a) has a ring and wasn't a liability during that run and (b) is now with a franchise for whom his annual cap hit (through 2016) is no longer seen as a burden or a complete mistake by a previous regime like it was in Chicago.
If there was resentment of Campbell in Chicago, it was in seeing beloved players leave while he ate up $7.1 million on the cap. With that hit gone, and with both the Blackhawks and Campbell thriving, it'd be odd to see this homecoming become a bitter one.