Brian Campbell isn't the kind of defenseman who makes you wish you had six of him. But he is the kind of defenseman who makes you glad you have one, particularly now that the NHL has reverted to a league that puts a premium on skating and skill.
Campbell was at it again Thursday night as the Sabres swarmed the Philadelphia Flyers, 4-2, at HSBC Arena. He rattled a first-period shot off a goal post after entering the play as the trailer. He scored the second-period goal that put the Sabres ahead for good on a two-on-two break with Derek Roy. He had another quality chance in the third period after catching the Flyers off guard.
Campbell was all over the ice, flying end to end. At times you had to wonder if it was 1985 and Phil Housley was back in a Sabres uniform.
It's been a long, difficult journey, but Campbell, 26, has arrived as an NHL defenseman, established himself as an integral part of one of the league's premier teams. Thursday's goal was his ninth, tripling his previous career high. The other night in Atlanta it was Campbell who laid out the Thrashers' Brad Larsen, avenging the Larsen hit that knocked Dmitri Kalinin out of action. His game has never been more complete.
Campbell has his shortcomings, as his minus-10 rating attests. But those deficiencies are offset by the dimension he adds to the offense, his uncanny ability to find an opening, time his move, catch opponents unaware.
"He's a key part of our team," said coach Lindy Ruff. "We count on him to make plays. There were opportunities tonight when he was up and back two or three times in a shift where he was the lead guy leading the rush and he was the guy coming back catching people. I think it all starts with his effort."
Opening night provided a glimpse of what Campbell could accomplish in the new NHL. He had a goal in Buffalo's 6-4 victory over the Islanders, feeding off the 14 goals he scored in 44 games while playing in Finland during the lockout.
"I'm not a goal scorer but for some reason I scored goals last year," Campbell said. "Now I have a lot of confidence and I know I can score. I'm like, 'All right, I can shoot this puck and it may go in.'
"[The new rules] definitely help. Once you get the puck and you have a step on a guy, you have a step on a guy and you're allowed to have that step on a guy. You know, I'm not the biggest guy, and one hook from a 222-pounder pulls you back pretty good."
Ruff wasn't sure where the 6-foot, 190-pound Campbell fit in during the latter part of October. Three times Campbell was scratched. Twice he played fewer than six minutes in games. Ruff assured the defenseman it was no reflection on his play, which made the inactivity more difficult for Campbell to accept.
"I think that was the hardest time to sit out -- all the times that I've had to sit out here," Campbell said. "That really hit hard. You're playing good enough to play but you're not playing. I kept going and working and finally I got an opportunity."
"We decided to put him in, keep him in," Ruff said. "The way he was playing he deserved to be in. He worked his way up the power-play ladder to become the key left-handed shot for us on one unit. He earned that spot he's playing in right now."
The Sabres don't have another defenseman like him, but one does them just fine.
"I think a big part of why we're being successful right now is the balance we have on defense," said defenseman Jay McKee. "We have a couple guys who are more offensive-minded, a couple guys who are more defensive-minded, a couple guys that are all-around, and I think that shows with our special teams. You need that balance. You don't want five or six guys like me on the team and you don't want five or six guys like Brian. You want a mix and that's what we have here."