Restricted free agency challenging again

Is the news that Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Chris Campoli and winger Viktor Stalberg have filed for salary arbitration an indication that general manager Stan Bowman is having trouble signing his three restricted free agents?

Campoli, Stalberg and Michael Frolik, who is not eligible for arbitration, have been available to be signed since the season ended but it’s now heading into the second week of July and they remain unsigned despite Bowman’s proclamations he expects them to return in “short order.”

There have been some indications that the timetable isn’t going as planned. Bowman said at the NHL draft in late June he was focusing on the draft and would turn his attention to his restricted free agents the next week. That was the week leading up to free agency so when July 1 came around and still his restricted free agents had not signed, Bowman again pushed things back.

This time he said he had been focused on the unrestricted free agents, five of whom signed with the Hawks on Friday. Bowman then said again he would focus on Stalberg, Campoli and Frolik.

In one day he signed five players he had no history with. It’s taken two and a half months and three of his own remain in limbo. Obviously, there are different circumstances involved. The restricted free agents can’t go anywhere, at least not yet. The unrestricted ones need to be gobbled up before someone else does, but

the question still stands, why is it taking so long?

And then comes the filing for arbitration by Campoli and Stalberg.

It doesn’t mean they will go to an arbiter -- only two Hawks have had a hearing since 2005-2006 -- but one of them was Antti Niemi last year. Niemi “won” his case and the Hawks refused to pay him, making him an unrestricted free agent. Before that, Niklas Hjalmarsson received a surprise offer sheet from San Jose which the Hawks had to match, paying Hjalmarsson millions more than they planned. On the eve of free agency a year ago Bowman infamously said he wasn’t “worried about offer sheets,” and then got burned.

So is restricted free agency Bowman’s kryptonite?

It’s a small sample size but between Hjalmarsson, Niemi and this year’s crop it’s obvious it hasn’t gone as smooth as the Hawks would have liked.

Again, timing is undoubtedly playing a part. Campoli’s side must be looking at Steve Montador’s deal and licking their chops. Montador signed a four-year, $11 million contract on Thursday. Word has it Campoli is looking to top that deal by asking for $3 million per season. He’s five years younger and just one year away from unrestricted free-agency while Montador was one day away. They’re different kinds of players but in the same salary structure. Montador made $1.5 million last season and Campoli made $1.4.

Cases that go to arbitration most often favor the player so if the Hawks had signed Campoli before they traded for Montador maybe they get a better rate. It’s similar to Hjalmarsson’s situation last summer. If signed before July 1, the Hawks pay Hjalmarsson much less. Waiting hurt, just as it might again.

Stalberg shouldn’t be as complicated. His base salary was $785,000 and has very little on his resume. Remember, the sides can negotiate all the way up until the arbitration hearing. It would be a shock if Stalberg’s case was actually heard by an arbiter.

The most interesting situation of the three could turn out to be Frolik. He’s not eligible for arbitration due to his service time and age but there are indications he’s asking for a huge raise. His base salary was $850,000 last year and Frolik is looking for close to $2.5 million. He’s a two-time 20-goal scorer but he had an off year in 2010-2011, netting just 11 goals in 80 games played between Florida and Chicago. He did come alive in the playoffs scoring twice while adding three assists in seven game and played stellar defense in a shut-down role. Still, with no leverage that would be a huge raise.

It’s one Frolik’s former general manager Dale Tallon would be more apt to agree to. When he was the GM of the Hawks, Tallon bypassed some “second” contracts for some former Hawks giving them “third” contract money. It helped put the Hawks in their nearly two-year salary cap crunch and, ironically, it helped facilitate trading some of those players.

The good news this time around is no offer sheets arrived for the Hawks restricted free agents, making it easier -- and cheaper -- to get them signed. But arbitration still provides leverage for the player and a potential headache for the Hawks.