By Allan Muir
To outsiders anyway, it appeared as though the 2010 NHL Draft was falling perfectly for the Dallas Stars. The team had a clear organizational need for a puck-moving defenseman in the wake of Sergei Zubov’s retirement, and the best one in the draft, Windsor’s Cam Fowler, was about to drop right into their lap at No. 11.
When the New York Rangers went off the board to nab Moose Jaw thug Dylan “The Undertaker” McIlrath with the 10th pick, you could see the smile widen on Joe Nieuwendyk’s face.
Dallas’ second-year GM was the picture of cool as he strode to the podium, knowing he was going to get his man.
Nieuwendyk later said that even though Fowler, Central Scouting’s third-ranked prospect, was available, the U.S. national team goalie was always their guy.
“Our scouts pushed hard for [Campbell],” he said at the time. “After [Taylor] Hall and [Tyler] Seguin,
this is the kid that we feel has the best chance to be a franchise player. He was our guy, right from the start.”
That conversation came to mind Tuesday morning when the Stars announced that they’d recalled the 21-year-old from AHL Texas. With three games in four nights starting Wednesday, there’s a good chance that he makes his NHL debut this week.
It’s been an interesting ride for Campbell since the draft. He backed out of his commitment with the University of Michigan in order to play for Windsor of the OHL where he had his moments, but was viewed as wildly inconsistent. “I think he thought he was going to waltz in here and dominate the league,” a veteran OHL scout told me while Campbell’s save percentage hovered around 88. “It’s a little tougher than it looks.”
A trade to Sault Ste. Marie early the following season failed to jumpstart his game or power the Greyhounds into the postseason, and a return to the scene of his greatest glory, the World Juniors, was disastrous as the Americans barely avoided relegation.
No one doubted Campbell’s talent. But questions were starting to pop up about his mental toughness.
“I think it was too much, too soon for him,” the scout said. “[Gold medals at] the U-18s and the World Juniors…I think he started believing his own press. This isn’t a tournament. This is a grind that will wear you down. He needs to get his head on straight…he needs to figure that out.”
To his credit, Campbell began putting the pieces together this season as a rookie pro with the AHL Stars. Word from Cedar Park is that he’s been an excellent teammate and he’s put in the work that’s required to make the big step up. And while he still plays with a lot of swagger, it’s more earned and less of a defense mechanism like it seemed to be at times in juniors.
He still has a long road ahead of him to prove that he’s over that hump, but this recall is a nice reward for his efforts…as long as its brief. Even with Richard Bachman struggling, Campbell doesn’t belong in the backup job in Dallas. He needs regular ice.
And there’s no rush. Starter Kari Lehtonen is one of the game’s best keepers and he begins collecting on a five-year extension starting next season. Lehtonen has a no-trade clause through 2014-15 and a limited NTC for the remainder of the deal, so there’s no reason to think he’s going away any time soon.
If Campbell sees game action, it’ll be a big step in the process of nurturing him into Lehtonen’s eventual replacement. But it’s just another step on a long path. For the time being, Campbell remains a depth asset in the organization. And as long as that’s the case, there will always be questions about that day in 2010.
One pick after Campbell, the Ducks pounced on Fowler at 12. He stepped directly into the NHL as an 18-year-old on the strength of his skating and playmaking skills and made an instant impact, scoring 40 points as a rookie. While he remains a work in progress — he still has no physical presence and he needs to make good decisions with the puck more consistently — he’s a proven high-end talent with nearly 200 NHL games to his credit.
No questioning the wisdom of Anaheim’s pick. Now it’s up to Campbell to begin the validation of Nieuwendyk’s draft day decision.