Buffalo, NY (GS) — If you are a fan of the Buffalo Sabres, then you have learned that bigger isn’t always better. Players like Mike Peca, Brian Holzinger, Curtis Brown, Dixon Ward and Derek Plante hardly have the desired NHL size, yet they still have been very successful here at times. Brown is one of the true underrated players in the entire NHL, while Peca, despite being only 5-foot-10, is one of the most feared checkers. For several years, NHL teams became obsessed with size when it came to drafting players, often selecting big raw projects, rather than selecting pure talent, and the Buffalo Sabres were no different (note the selections of Brad May, Joel Savage and David Cooper). Recently, the Sabres have stepped away from the draft “big” philosophy, looking more towards talent. In several cases they appear to have taken players with potential big time upsides, and in other cases they may have been gambles.
One of players with a potential big time payout could be Norm Milley, a 1998 second round pick. Milley currently leads the OHL in points, and his raw offensive skills is something the Sabres could use a dose of. Another stud prospect who is rather small is Russian rocket, Maxim Afinoguonov. Maxim was considered by many as a risk. A poor defensive player with great skill, but very questionable size. Maxim’s raw speed and utter skill, simply wowed the scouts, fans and media at the 1999 World Junior Tournament, where he was named the tournaments most outstanding forward. His fiery spirit recently earned him 39 penalty minutes in a European Hockey League game.
Yet another potential big payoff may have occurred when Buffalo drafted Brian Campbell with their 6th round pick in 1997. At a 5-foot-11, 185 pounds, Campbell doesn’t posses the size most NHL teams desire in an defensemen. Nevertheless, Campbell’s incredible talent and raw skill is so high that his lack of size seems to be an afterthought, instead of the issue.
Brian is a flashy offensive minded defensemen, who has proven he can be a big time points-producer from the blueline. Brian is one of the best skaters in the entire junior system, and his smooth powerful skating has drawn comparisons to Paul Coffey and Phil Housley.
Still heading into the 1998-99 season, Brian was a virtual unknown to Sabres fans and not all that well known outside of the Ontario Hockey League. How one great season can change that simple fact.
The first thing which occurred this past season, was that Brian came out of the gate and simply dominated the OHL. He immediately started to dominate the scoring race among OHL defensemen. His numbers were so spectacular, almost a point-and-a-half a game, that he was invited to Team Canada’s World Junior tryout game despite not having not attended the summer camp. At the camp, he continued to impress and he made the team, but this time it wasn’t just his offensive prowess which was getting noticed.
The critics jumped out and questioned Brian’s selection, questioning his overall defensive skills. His lack of size was one of the main reasons to argue against his selection. Upon close inspection, it seems that far too many of these critics looked at Brian’s numbers and assumed that he must be a weak defensive player, if he had such large offensive numbers.
Team Canada coach Tom Renney defended his selection by saying “(The offence) is not the No. 1 thing we’re looking for out of Brian,” referring to Campbell’s strong defensive play. “I think he’s right on track.”
Like all things prior, Brian was determined to prove the critics wrong. He had always done whatever it took to beat the odds and this tournament was the ultimate challenge. “I’ve worked hard for it. In Ottawa, I don’t think I’ve been getting the respect playing behind guys like (fellow defencemen) Nick Boynton and Sean Blanchard. I guess this is kind of a breakthrough year for me where I’m starting to get noticed.”
“Just the caliber of play is exceptional,” he said. “When I get back to (the 67′s), this will have been a great experience for me.
Brian simply refused to back down and by the end of the two week tournament, Brian had went from an unknown across Canada to almost National hero status, and definitely became a known quantity. Campbell led the entire tournament with a +12 rating. He was not on the ice for a single goal against Canada in their seven games. His strong defensive performance was one of the key reasons why Canada won the silver medal, though it wouldn’t be fair if credit wasn’t also given to Canadian goalie Roberto Luongo.
Brian’s strong play at the World Juniors resulted in him being named as a first team all star as voted on by the media.
Since his return to Ottawa, Brian has been concentrating more on his defensive game. His offensive numbers have slumped down to about a half a point a game. “It’s my job to create some offence if I can, but to play solid defense is more important.”
The main reason for this is because Ottawa had been hit with some serious injury problems. During several recent game, Brian was asked to play around 40 minutes a game and sometimes more. Against Peterborough on Friday February 19, the 67′s were without three regular defensemen, including star prospect Nick Boynton (Washington). Brian logged an unreal 46 minutes of ice time, playing almost the entire third. Following the frustrating 6-5 loss, Campbell commented “We’re not finishing and we’re not holding our checks. There’s no way we should let six goals into our net.”
Coming into this season the future for Brian Campbell was still up in the air. If his overall performance this season hasn’t yet earned him a professional contract, then I have no idea why. Talent alone, he may be the most skilled defensemen the Sabres have had in their system since Phil Housley, but when you add in his drive, his competitive spirit and his willingness to work hard to better himself, what more can a team ask for.
excerpts taken from:
“Campbell’s first goal proves to be winner” by Terry Koshan, Toronto Sun http://www.canoe.ca/99WorldJuniors/dec31_cam.html
“‘Hounds power play shreds ailing 67′s” by By Barre Campbell, Ottawa Sun http://www.canoe.ca/OttawaSports/OS.OS-02-22-0063.html