Upon stepping into the Eastern Conference’s locker room at last year’s NHL All-Star Game, Brian Campbell
recalls asking himself; ‘Why do I deserve to be in a dressing room with the elite players that are here?’
“I was hiding behind everything, standing in the background,” the Buffalo Sabres defenseman told NHL.com. “I was just the guy trying to stay in the League, and now I’m in this situation?”
Four years removed from a middling start to his NHL career, Campbell now is one of those elite players, and one who this time expects to stand out amongst his super-talented peers at the 2008 NHL All-Star Game.
A year after fans voted him in as a starter for his first-ever NHL All-Star Game, Campbell is headed back to the League’s midseason spectacle at Philips Arena in Atlanta (Jan. 27, 6 p.m. ET, Versus, CBC, RDS, NHL Radio) as a reserve selected by League officials.
“I feel a lot more comfortable going this year. It’s easier the second time around with whatever you do,” Campbell said. “Deservedly so it’s been going pretty good so I’m happy with the selection. I’ve come a long way in a short period of time.”
A dozen years ago, Campbell had to be convinced by his parents and Hall of Fame coach Brian Kilrea that yes, he was good enough to play major junior hockey for Kilrea’s Ottawa 67s.
So no, he’s not stretching the truth by saying he’s come a long way.
Only this season, Campbell is operating without much of a cushion.
The Sabres, who won the franchise’s first Presidents’ Trophy last season, are roughing it without last year’s co-captains, Chris Drury (now with the Rangers) and Danny Briere (now with the Flyers).
The Sabres enter the All-Star break at 21-21-6, five points out of a playoff berth in the Eastern Conference.
Little blame, though, is going Campbell’s way.
With 33 points through 48 games, he’s on pace for his best season yet in terms of offensive production. He also is averaging more than 25 minutes per game, which is by far a career high in that department, too.
“He’s a great role model for guys coming up,” Sabres center Derek Roy said. “He’s one of those guys that is not totally vocal, he just does his talking on the ice.”
The only relevant stat that has dropped since last year is Campbell’s plus-minus rating. He was plus-28 last season but so far is a plus-2 this season. But with Drury and Briere the Sabres scored a League-best 298 goals last season and allowed just 238.
This season Buffalo is about even, and it has the record to prove it.
“I like the team in here. I do believe it’s a playoff team,” Campbell said. “Right now we’re playing some of our best hockey but aren’t finding ways to get the two points, but I want to be accountable and help with the growing process of this team.”
Campbell has done that by accepting a pair of new roles.
He has become one of Buffalo’s top penalty killers, and its emotional leader.
“He didn’t kill many penalties last year,” Sabres assistant coach James Patrick said. “This year, certainly with Teppo (Numminen) being injured, Brian has killed penalties all year.”
With Campbell’s help – he averages just over three minutes a game on the penalty kill, more than double what he earned last season in his limited PK role – the Sabres are one of the best shorthanded teams in the League, killing penalties at an 84.5-percent rate.
“I think it’s just the experience of finding himself in different situations and circumstances,” Patrick said. “For him to understand that, ‘Yeah, that’s what they’re trying to do here,’ you have to be on the ice to feel it and experience it. It takes time to gain that experience, and now that’s certainly part of his game.”
His leadership was on display in December, when Campbell wore the captain’s “C” on his sweater for the first time in his career. Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff is changing captains the first of every new month, and he put Campbell into the role during a gut-check month.
The Sabres were 5-5 in October and 6-6-1 in November, but under Campbell’s watch they went 8-5-1 in December. In fairness, though, Campbell was the captain in recent losses to New Jersey and the Rangers due to Jaroslav Spacek’s shoulder injury.
“Being able to see other captains like Dru and Danny last year, you kind of see what it takes. You try to make those guys your role models and he’s slowly following in those footsteps,” Sabres right wing Jason Pominville told NHL.com. “Eventually I would see him as a captain, hopefully of our team.”
Pominville clearly keeps up with his current events, because Campbell’s future in Buffalo came into doubt this week when he reportedly broke off contract negotiations until after the season, when he becomes an unrestricted free agent.
He could be traded before the deadline. He could sign elsewhere after the season. He also could stay in Buffalo under a long term contract that has yet to be worked out.
No matter where he winds up, Campbell will be welcomed as one of the League’s elite talents. That’s the kind of admiration a second straight All-Star nod gets you in the National Hockey League.
“He struggled in the old NHL. He was scratched and wasn’t playing well, but he’s the perfect fit for the game now,” Pominville said. “Being selected again is a huge honor for him. He’ll represent us well.”
Contact Dan Rosen at email@example.com