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Jason Woolley was shaking his head just thinking about The Kid, this redhead named Brian Campbell who is the latest good, young defenseman in the Sabres' system.

Woolley thought back a decade when he was a 20-year-old, the same age The Kid is now, knowing how many hockey instincts are untapped and how much talent is undeveloped. Woolley took a deep breath and provided the following assessment:

"You look around everywhere, and you don't see many young guys with the ability he has back there," Woolley said. "He's a good skater, and he has really good hands. But it's more about thinking the game and making the right decisions. He has that in him. He's going to get better and better and better. Defensively, he has no liabilities."

That's the thing with Campbell. He has never played in the NHL but he thinks like a 10-year veteran. Some say he looks like a young Brian Leetch. He knows when to get involved in the offense and how to be reliable in his own end. His hard, accurate shot was on display last weekend, when he whistled a puck into the net in a 3-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning.

It seems The Kid's only problem is that he now lives on a block full of them. The Sabres were deep along the blue line well before Campbell signed his first professional contract last spring. One thing working for him is that he's the only offensive-minded defenseman of the new bunch.

"A lot of people are asking where I'm going to play," Campbell said. "You don't know where you're going to play. My first intent is to stay here and play in Buffalo. The opportunity is there for me. I've played all right, but there's more to it. There's more to me than what has been shown so far."

Jay McKee and Rhett Warrener made up the Sabres' top defensive tandem in the playoffs last season, but both are involved in contract disputes. McKee turned 22 two weeks ago. Warrener is 23. Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre, 22, played 16 games for the Sabres last year and appears to have the inside lane on staying with them this season. He's 6-foot-3, 210 pounds and tough.

Cory Sarich, 21, was one of the better defensemen in the AHL last season. He, too, is aggressive and is among the Sabres' top prospects. Sarich (6-3, 175) could make a push this year after playing four games with Buffalo last season. Dimitri Kalinin, 19, is considered another talent who will start the season in Rochester. Jason Holland, 23, is still developing, but he also played in Buffalo last season.

"Us young guys, we got a little bit of taste last year and we're all gung-ho for getting in there," Sarich said. "The longer they're holding out, the better chance for us, definitely. We want to take full advantage of the situation."

So where does it all fit for Campbell? He was named the top junior player in Canada last season after leading the Ottawa 67s to the Memorial Cup title. He was a fifth-round pick in 1997 who blossomed in the Ontario Hockey League for two years since the draft.

The 5-11, 185-pounder had 12 goals and 75 assists in 66 games with Ottawa last season and played well in the World Junior Championships. He'll probably start in Rochester, but Sabres coach Lindy Ruff has not made a final decision. Campbell will play in the NHL someday, barring serious injury. It's now a matter of when.

"Maybe it takes some time to get used to it," Campbell said. "I come into a camp and work on some things with my skills and my smarts out on the ice. I know I lack in size but my skating helps out with that. I'm not shy to play the rough style of game."

Alexei Zhitnik is nursing a slightly separated shoulder, but he should be ready for the season opener Oct. 2 in Detroit. His defense partner, Richard Smehlik, isn't going anywhere.

The Sabres, who lost Darryl Shannon to expansion Atlanta, also have veterans Woolley and James Patrick on the roster. McKee and Warrener will eventually be signed but for now there's a spot available for Campbell to take an early test.

"If everybody was signed and in camp, it would be very tough to crack the top six. A year in Rochester would be the best thing for him," Ruff said. "He's handled himself very well in the exhibition games so far, and that bodes well for him. Right now, he's vying for a spot with two guys that are unsigned."

It's up to the Sabres to decide how they want to play. Do they want to be more physical? They can plug in Grand-Pierre or Sarich. Do they need more offense? Then they can test Campbell. Do they want trade bait?

Prospect Alexei Tezikov was expendable for Joe Juneau last season because the Sabres are so deep at the position. It seems like a decade ago when the Sabres goofed and lost Rumun Ndur to the New York Rangers last season.

"There's a great core of guys here," Sarich said. "You look at Jean-Luc, myself, Brian Campbell, Dmitri Kalinin, Jason Holland. The list goes on just in case I forgot anybody. Everybody that comes here has their own talents, and we work together well. Who knows? There could be (the same) guys around here for a long time."

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