Sunday, February 24, 2008

Deal or no deal

It's trading deadline time in the National Hockey League, and the drama is building here in Buffalo. Most of it centers around a talented young defenseman named Brian Campbell, who has played in the NHL All-Star Game for the last couple of years and has moves on the ice not seen in these parts since Phil Housley.

Campbell is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, and he is probably going to be a rich man when he signs that next contract. Campbell probably will earn close to $6 million per year over the course of a multiyear contract. Not bad.

But the usual dance goes on in the meantime, and that's where things get interesting.

There are two usual options in this situation. The Sabres could try to deal Campbell in the next two days, trying to extract a high draft choice and a good prospect for him from a Stanley Cup contender. The idea is that if Buffalo is convinced it can't sign Campbell, it's better to get something for him if he isn't going to be re-signed by July. A great many players have left the Sabres in the past two years this way, including Chris Drury, Daniel Briere, Jay McKee and Mike Grier. Those losses have turned a top team into one in the middle of the pack, and they have caused problems with the fan base.

The other option is to hold on to Campbell. That would give the team four extra months to sign him, and they would get to keep him for the stretch run and possibly for the playoffs. Campbell has said he wouldn't mind staying a Sabre. Of course, everyone has said that, and they more or less all walked away.

This is a tough enough decision under most circumstances. This isn't a veteran who might have one last hurrah left in him for a contender (Mats Sundin of Toronto comes to mind). This is someone who could be a top defenseman for years.

Meanwhile, the Sabres' on-ice performance hasn't done team management any favors in terms of decision-making. It is lingering around the dividing line between the playoff teams and the non-playoff teams. And that brings us to the point that needs to come up right now.

The Sabres are clearly a better team with Campbell in the lineup than with Campbell in San Jose's lineup after a trade. It looks like it is possible that the Sabres are a playoff team with Campbell, and not a playoff team without him. Which brings us to, naturally money.

If the Sabres do make the playoffs, they are guaranteed at least two playoff games and might get three even if they lose in the first round. The going rate for income at playoff time is said to be around $1 million per game, although that may be a little high for Buffalo as compared to, say, Philadelphia or New York. Still, that's $2-3 million sitting on the table.

And the Sabres could be matched against the Southeast Division winner with a sixth-place Eastern Conference finish, a matchup that looks like it could be won right now. A trip to the second round could be worth another $2-3 million, bringing the total to $4-6 million. That could pay Campbell's contract for a year.

Summing up, then, the Sabres could do nothing for now, thus improving their chances of earning millions of dollars in the postseason and buying some more time to talk contract with Campbell. They also increase their chances of having him walk away for nothing, which would be another public relations disaster.

But what if Campbell isn't the difference? What if the team isn't a Stanley Cup playoff team with him on the roster? Conversely, what if it is a playoff team even without him?

The Sabres front office has to make the best possible guess about those questions, and it has fewer than two days to do it. General manager Darcy Regier and company will earn their salaries during that time.

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