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Campbell must make different transition

by Larry Wigge

Brian Campbell has eight multiple-assist games and nine multiple-point games this season.
He's not a red-headed stepchild anymore. Not when a general manager like Doug Wilson – himself a pretty fair defenseman – singles out Brian Campbell as the player he wants to quarterback the San Jose Sharks on the blue line.

That's a long road from the day in June 1997, when the Strathroy, Ontario, native was picked in the sixth round – 156th overall – of the NHL Entry Draft by the Buffalo Sabres.

"Brian's a guy that gets the puck out of your zone quick," said Wilson, after he acquired the 28-year-old Campbell from the Buffalo Sabres for former 2003 first-round draft choice Steve Bernier and a first-round pick in this year's Entry Draft. "He's a quarterback on the power play, and he will complement our group really well."

Transition. Transition. Transition.

Remember when Wilson made a similar deal with the Montreal Canadiens for Craig Rivet? Well, Campbell is the next step up, contributing 12 goals and 32 assists in 2005-06 and another six goals and 42 assists last season when he was named to play in the League's annual All-Star Game. He also had an impressive plus-28 rating.

This season, he had five goals and 38 assists in 63 games for the Sabres.

"That he was drafted so late always surprised me," St. Louis Blues defenseman Jay McKee said of his former Buffalo defense partner. "I guess they considered him too small (at 6-foot, 191 pounds). But he's proven so durable, plays a lot of minutes and has a ton of offensive upside.

"To me, he's always been a very, very dangerous player."

Sabres coach Lindy Ruff, who was coaching the Eastern Conference at the All-Star Game in Dallas a year ago, gushed about Campbell, saying, "I would liken him with the way he is playing this year almost to a young Brian Leetch. He's great with the puck, he's a tremendous skater. And he's been as good both ways as any defenseman in the East."

One year later .... gone.

The Sharks are one of those teams that have underachieved in the playoffs, and a big part of that goes back to their lack of production on the power play. Last season, in fact, San Jose had just four power-play goals in 11 playoff games while being bounced in the second round by Detroit, getting nine goals total in six games against the Red Wings.

The Sabres didn't want to part with Campbell. But after getting nothing in return for free agents Daniel Briere and Chris Drury last summer, the team was worried the same might happen with Campbell after he recently turned down a three-year, $17.1 million offer made by Buffalo. Campbell asked for five years at $25 million, but that was turned down by the Sabres.

All prices for skilled defensemen likely went up one day before the Feb. 26 NHL trade deadline when the Tampa Bay Lightning re-signed defenseman Dan Boyle to a six-year, $40 million deal.

And when the Sharks were rebuffed in their attempt to get defenseman Tomas Kaberle from Toronto, this was Wilson's next-best option.

Campbell remembers well not being able to get out of the press box before the post-lockout NHL shifted toward his speed and skill.

"Confidence can do wonders for a player, especially one with the skills that Brian has," McKee said. "You could see the confidence and comfort in Soupy's eyes after the lockout."

"It's pretty special when you come a long way in a few years and get the opportunity," Campbell told me of the patience it took to finally get the kind of chance he needed to make his skills work. "It took a while, but ..."

Truth be told, Campbell entertained the idea that he might leave the NHL for Europe four years ago, obviously looking at the success Brian Rafalski had as a small, skilled defenseman before he joined the New Jersey Devils for two Stanley Cup title runs.

You could say that, at 28, he's entering the best years for a defenseman. He's loaded with postseason experience, playing 34 games the last two years with a team that reached the Eastern Conference Final in consecutive years. He can skate with the best players in the League and handles the puck better than most forwards in the game.

Getting a chance first ... and then proving himself in the playoffs has been the key for the red-headed defenseman (whom McKee says sometimes looks like "a Flying Tomato" when he doesn't have his helmet on).

"Knowing that I could play against top lines, knowing that I could play top penalty-killing and then taking on minutes and being a guy that can handle playing the minutes," Campbell recalled, before completing his thought. "When I did it in the playoffs, that was a big step."

In other words, it's all about hunger and wanting to be better that's key for Campbell.

"I want to me more like (Detroit defensemen) Brian Rafalski or Nicklas Lidstrom," Campbell said after becoming the first Buffalo defenseman to play in consecutive All-Star Games since Phil Housley in 1989 and 1990. "I try to watch guys like that. I watch everything they do. For me, it's all about trying to get in the elite category. That's my next goal."

And he'll have a better chance of reaching that goal playing with offensively gifted forward like Joe Thornton, Jonathan Cheechoo, Milan Michalek, Patrick Marleau and Jeremy Roenick on his side in San Jose.

Quarterback? Remember how often people from all sports took shots at a quarterback named Eli Manning before he was named MVP of the most recent Super Bowl?

Well, Brian Campbell is another QB looking to reach for the stars.


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