ST. PAUL — It's easy to forget what the Chicago Blackhawks looked like in Summer 2008. Names like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Patrick Sharp didn't carry championship heft. Denis Savard was the head coach. They were in a five-season playoff drought. The fan bandwagon still had plenty of empty seats.
Brian Campbell helped change the perception of how close they were to contention. The 8-year, $57.1 million free-agent contract given to him by GM Dale Tallon exhibited a commitment to winning and to spending, two things the Blackhawks weren't exactly known for under the late Bill Wirtz. It signaled a new day for the franchise.
Three years later, now-Florida Panthers GM Tallon is making an example out of Campbell again.
"It's very similar to why we brought him into Chicago. It gives us credibility," he said after the 2011 NHL Draft, where the Panthers acquired Campbell for forward Rostislav Olesz.
"I brought Soupy into Chicago. He's willing to come down and help us turn our franchise around and that speaks volumes."
The Chicago Blackhawks sought to deal Campbell because of his $7,142,875 cap hit.
"The biggest thing was with our salary cap situation; it's not a big secret. The last year or two we haven't had much cap space and we were looking for flexibility," said Chicago GM Stan Bowman.
"It's tough from that perspective to make a trade because he's an important part of our team. But you saw our cap situation over the past couple years and that's the way it's going to be for a while," he said. "When you kind of see you've got players coming up that are going to be earning more money in years to come, you've got to figure out where the money is going to come from and obviously Brian's contract was one of the largest ones on the books for us. That was really the main thing. He was a really effective player for us. Just in our team structure, the contract made it difficult."
The catch was getting Campbell to waive his no-trade clause for a deal to Florida.
"He had eight teams he could select to go to. We weren't one of those teams," said Tallon.
"I got calls from Chicago and then his agent [saying] he'd like to talk to you. We talked a couple of times. I explained the blueprint, similar to what we did in Chicago, and he was able to convince his family and his fiancé that this was the right move for him. And I think it is."
What were their talks like?
"A great conversation with a guy who loves to play hockey. It's a tough decision, obviously. I brought him there. Chicago is a great city, a great market. But Florida's a great market and a great place to live," said Tallon.
"He made the commitment to us to come to Florida, so that says a lot. That's really important to us: [For] a player of his stature to add us to the list and make the decision to come to Florida means a heck of a lot to me and our organization."
Will it mean a lot to his peers? The Panthers are going to be active players this summer, dramatically restructuring their roster. Just like when he signed with Chicago, Campbell's contract signals a willingness by Florida to spend money on top talent.
What does that mean for a player like free agent Tomas Vokoun, the Panthers' starting goalie? Tallon plans on speaking to him this week to find out.
After that, it's on to the free-agent frenzy on July 1, where Tallon will look for more players both in free agency and via trades — an attempt to make the team better and get the Panthers above the League's $48.3 million salary floor.
"The focus is not the floor," he declared. "The focus is on us becoming a really good team as quickly as possible without jeopardizing our future."
Campbell joins a Panthers team that has 11 players under contract and $41 million in cap space with which to play. He becomes the best offensive defenseman on the roster and a power-play quarterback for a team that was worst in the NHL with the man advantage, scoring 35 goals on 268 chances.
On the ice, he plays a style of hockey Tallon wants his Panthers to play.
"I'm a fan too. I like playmakers, and I like skill and speed," he said.
"I'm selling fun here."
Clearly, Campbell bought it.