Lost in the first excitement of the trade that shook the NHL Thursday night was the steep financial price paid by the Calgary Flames to land Michael Cammalleri from the Montreal Canadiens, essentially for winger René Bourque.
Ever since Jay Feaster took over as Calgary general manager 13 months ago, he has painstakingly shed his payroll of unwanted contracts – Ales Kotalik, Niklas Hagman, Daymond Langkow and others. At the June entry draft, Feaster described this as salary-cap hell, which had clearly been upgraded to salary-cap purgatory by Thursday when he took on what remains of the five-year, $30-million (all currency U.S.) contract Cammalleri signed with Montreal on July 1, 2009. The annual salary-cap charge may be $6-million, but the contract is back loaded, so in terms of actual dollars paid to Cammalleri, Calgary is on the hook for $7-million in each of the next two seasons.
For $7-million, Cammalleri needs to be at least the player he was in his one and only previous season in Calgary, when he scored 39 goals, 19 on the power play, and developed a unique chemistry with Flames captain Jarome Iginla.
The 2008-09 season represented one of Iginla's most effective as a playmaker, with 54 assists, second most in his career. Teams would overplay Iginla, especially on the power play, and Iginla would find Cammalleri open with precision passing. It was a formula that worked spectacularly well until the final month of the season, when Olli Jokinen's acquisition from Phoenix shuffled the playing deck, scrambled the payroll and eventually meant there was no money left over to pay Cammalleri.
It meant that Flames fans were permitted to witness, from afar, the 2010 playoffs, where Cammalleri scored 13 goals in 19 games for Montreal, ably supporting Jaroslav Halak's superb goaltending as the Canadiens advanced to the final four. What the Flames need from Cammalleri as he makes his debut Saturday night against the Los Angeles Kings is some combination of his one Calgary regular season and his first Montreal postseason.
Cammalleri's return is about the only development that could overshadow Darryl Sutter's homecoming, and that story plays out on multiple levels too. Cammalleri broke in with the Kings; Sutter was the GM in Calgary who acquired him for a first-round pick, and was also the GM who let him go to Montreal because of the team's financial obligations to others.
Of course, fans are not obliged to worry about accounting matters. That is the GM's job, and on Thursday night, as Feaster announced the trade, his press conference was simultaneously shown on the Scotiabank Saddledome Jumbotron, and was greeted with wild applause. The people have spoken; Cammalleri will get a warm welcome in his return. Now all he has to do to keep their affection is to get his slumping game back on the rails.