Bruins find a keeper in Steve Kampfer

191545.jpg

Bruins find a keeper in Steve Kampfer

By Joe Haggerty
CSNNE.com

BOSTON You hear the same thing over and over again in pro sports.

Its like acatchy song chorus when the topic of conversation turns to the lifeblood of professional sports teams.

Throwing money at a superstar or two can certainly give any squad an immediate booster shot, but its drafting and developing young players that build and sustain the most successful organizations in any of the four major sports.

Its drafting and development, and its nearly always in that order. Drafting and development all the time.There may be no more difficult accomplishment in the NHL than drafting, developing, cultivating and ultimately producing the mythic puck-moving defenseman. The Bruins have drafted several defensemen over the last few years, but none of them were ready to contribute significantly headed into this season.

Creative puck-movers are always at a premium in an NHL that chews up and spits out blueliners no matter how big, fast, brave, tough and confident they are.

The Bs, in particular, needed somebody skilled in the art of moving the puckto step into the Boston breach of puck-transitioning defenseman after Dennis Wideman was dealt away toFloridafor Nathan Horton and Gregory Campbell last summer.

Potential prospects like Matt Lashoff and Jonathan Sigalet never panned out or were traded away. Yuri Alexandrov is just getting his feet wet in the North American game. Andrew Bodnarchuk doesnt appear to be an impact player. Tommy Cross is still finishing up at Boston College. German defenseman Dennis Ruel wasa miss as a fifth-rounder in the 2007 draft.

Armed with the realistic scenario that the Bruins didnt have many young defensemen in the immediate pipeline -- and in need of an infusion of defense talent -- the Bruins front office and scouting department went off script for a solution.

The hunt is on
College scouting director John Weisbrod and Bruins Director of Hockey Administrationcollege scout Ryan Nadeau spent long hours out on the road watching college hockey games across the country, and were charged with tracking many of the young draft-eligible prospects playing NCAA hockey.

Its really a testament to the organizational outlook on things. General manager Peter Chiarellis impetus was really to make sure we were casting the net as wide as we could in the college world, said Bruins assistant general manager Don Sweeney. He put John Weisbrod and Ryan Nadeau in charge of it, and theyre identifying talent all the time.

Weisbrod also kept his eye on other teams draft property while watching draft-eligible players and potential free-agent bargains. Weisbrod began bugging Chiarelli and assistant general managers Sweeney and Jim Benning about other teams draft picks that forced their way onto his radar.

The Bruins front-office execs have come to welcome that bugging, as its begun to bear fruit at the NHL level.

Weisbrod spotted a couple of college defense prospects that he salivated over from a scouting perspective last season: University of Michigan blueliner Steve Kampfer and Ohio State defenseman Matt Bartkowski.

Weisbrod was at a University of Michigan game last season tracking several potential free-agent prospects, but he instead came away raving about the feisty, skilled Kampfer.

The first time I saw him, I was kind of blown away, said Weisbrod of the 5-foot-10, 188-pounder. Even though he was a little undersized for an NHL defenseman and didnt fit the prototype so to speak, what stood out to me was that he was a great skater.

Not so much his straight-line speed, but his agility and ability to change direction really quickly with his skating. Thats something thats obviously very important to make the jump to the NHL and more than anything he was wildly competitive. He was a mature competitor. He didnt take any short cuts, and he really just competed and played at a really high pace.

Both were the property of other NHL teams, but Weisbrod made note of bothKampfer and Bartkowskiif they ever became available via trade or free agency.Last March, they did. The Bruins acquired Kampfer from Anaheim for a fourth-round draft choice. Bartkowski was part of the trade that brought Dennis Seidenberg to Boston from the Florida Panthers.
The success in dealing for NCAA draft picks like Kampfer and Bartkowski has sinceemboldened the Bruins to continue mining that resource, and this season the Bs also picked up BU defensemen David Warsofsky and Colby Cohen in trading away Vladimir Sobotka and Matt Hunwick.

The thing now in defensemen, at least to me, is that everybody notices when a guy can skate straight ahead with the puck and lead the rush. But with the rules the way they are now in the NHL where you cant clutch and grab, youve got to have the agility to keep yourself in front of people defensively, said Weisbrod. Because of how fast and quick people are now in the league, a lot of defensemen get weeded outby their skating and agility and their inability to keep themselves in front of people where they have to hook and hold or do something that gets them a penalty.

The big thing about Kampfer is that hes always had very lively feet, and he could keep himself in front of even the most skilled players at the college level. He could move with them. When you combine that with his competitiveness and the mean streak he had in college, even if he was a bit undersized those two attributes were going to take him a long way.

The Bs college scouting eyes and ears still remembers exactly what caught thateye in a game Kampfer wont soon ever forget for all the wrong reasons.

Well let Weisbrod tell the story.

I was at sort of an infamous game where they played Michigan State. Michigan State had a high draft pick in a big, physical, tough forward named Andrew Conboy as a freshman, and he was sort of an enforcer and a rugged player, said the Bruins scout. Kampfer was in his face all night long competing and battling, and Conboy was 6-foot-3. By the end of the game he had driven Conboy so crazy that the kid sort of went berserk, and speared Kampfer in the midsection and looked like he really hurt him.

It caused a mini-riot in the rink and consequently Conboy got kicked out of Michigan State because it was such a gross infraction. My point being: Look at this little 5-foot-11 defenseman and this big 6-foot-3 goon, and he just made it his business to agitate him, compete with him and stay in his face all night until the other guy just snapped. He has that ability to get under peoples skin with his competitiveness. Obviously things sort out a little differently as a pro, but now that willingness to battle is allowing him to hold his own at the NHL level.

Landing their prize
In theory and in follow-through, the acquisition of Kampfer became a true example of the entire Bruins front office working together from beginning to end. Kampfer popped up on the radar of Weisbrod in the first place. Sweeney and Benning both followed up after they reached a consensus of interest, and then Chiarelli found a way to acquire the targeted player from Anaheim.

Developing Kampfer was really a team process, said Sweeney. A lot us saw him early on in his career at Michigan and he was kind of a wild child and loose cannon on the ice. As everybody went along we just kept seeing him get better and better.

John Weisbrod and Ryan Nadeau both saw that progression, and then Benning and Chiarelli got involved. We all sort of agreed that Kampfer looked like he was going to be an NHL player, and when he came into Providence he looked very comfortable with his puck movement. Thats not something that you see very often in a young player even after four years of college hockey. He processes the game very well. I was in Providence for that first game, and I remember sending a message to Peter during the game that this kid is an NHL player. I just felt in my bones that he was going to be able to play.

One of Chiarellis biggest strengths as a general manager is the intelligence and wisdom to listen to his entire staff and gain consensus, and thats exactly what made it possible to retool their organizational depth on defense.

The trade for Kampfer at least years trade deadline wasnt a heralded move, given the youngsters relative anonymity in the NHL world and Bostons NHL need at the timefor scoring up-front. But Chiarelli,Sweeney, Benning, Weisbrod and Co. knew the Bruins had something to work with.

Kampfer also admitted there was little chance he was going to sign with the Ducks given their depth situation at the defensemen position, so the trade allowed the Bruins to take the other 28 teams out of the equation in a potential free agent bidding war situation last summer.

His size, his status as a fifth-round pick and the fact he suffered a broken neck during his sophomore year of college all served as potential detractors on a surface look at Kampfers game, but that never deterred the Bruins once theyd made their decision.

Once both Kampfer and Bartkowski became members of the Bruins organization, it was simply up to them to live up to everything Weisbrod had pennedin his multiple reports on each of them. Theyve both done that while making their NHL debuts this season, and Kampfer has truly blossomed as something rare and precious within the Bs organization: a true puck-moving defenseman that could very well be the key to their playoff fate.

An impact player
Kampfer has four goals and four assists in 24 games prior to the All-Star break, but his value goes beyond the numbers. Hes been the rare rookie thats almost immediately earned the confidence of the coaching staff, and hes averaging more than 18 minutes of ice time per night while logging big power play minutes.

Where the Bruins had big time bluelinequestions after trading both Wideman and Matt Hunwick, Kampfer was been the answer in the 24 games since his arrival. He was called up to the Bruins as a22-year-old rookie on an emergency basis when Mark Stuart broken his hand, and he doesnt appear destined for that return trip to Providence.

Kampfers skating speed, his agility that allows him to sidestep forecheckers, his vision on the ice while making the entry pass or finding seams in the defense, and his tenacity have already made him a component among the blueline corps that the Bruins cant live without."He's really good at seeing the ice and moving the puck along with some speed. He really seems to be learning and picking things up every game," said Zdeno Chara of Kampfer, his 'D' partner since he arrived in Boston. "He's playing extremely well. He's a smart guy and he's very calm. You don't see him panic much at all."It's not easy. It's a tough spot. Defense is a position that has so many responsibilities, but that's just the way it is. For a guy like him to come in from a place where he was only playing 40 or 50 games max and jumping to a much heavier NHLschedule -- probably the toughest challenge he's ever had to face -- he's doing well. But even for me as a 33-year-old player, I'm still learning all the time and noticing things about different players. You always have to be on your toes. You can't be comfortable even if you've been in the league for 13 or 14 years."

Kampfers seamless transition to the NHL is equal parts God-given hockey ability and the development system that the Bruins set in place to nurture their young hockey talent toward readiness.

I was ecstatic when I got the call from Chiarelli telling him he'd been traded to Boston. Everybody wants to play for an Original Six team and I grew up watching clips of Bobby Orr, Ray Bourque and Cam Neely, said Kampfer. Then you see the guys that are here now, and you think that maybe youll be there in a couple of years.

For me to be here so soon was such a nice surprise. Everyone here wants you to succeed and is here to help you. Its one of those things where you have all the resources, and the entire staff is basically cheering you on. Its all about how well you perform, and that really helps. Playing last year for Butch Cassidy and Rob Murray in Providence gave me a lot of confidence, and seeing them this year at camp really got me on the right foot. Then Matt Hunwick really helped me learn the system this summer. Talking and watching video with Don Sweeney during the rookie camp. All of these little things added up to the organization wanting me to succeed and do well, and they gave me the resources to do it.

The playmaking abilities have been obvious in flashes -- his rush toward the net for a goal late in the Jan. 1 game against the Buffalo Sabres, or the game-winning goal against the Flyers in a 7-5 win on Jan. 13. The steady, heady play between the flashes of brilliance has been even more valuable to the Bs, and the overall improvement by the blueline corps since his arrival has been hard to miss. The Bruins offense has jumped from 2.88 goals per game in 26 games prior to his arrival to 3.17 goals per game in the 24 games since then, and the defensemen have posted 17 goals and 35 assists as a unitin those 24 games with Kampfer.The defense corps has posted a pair of four-goal games -- the first time four different Bruins defensemen scored in the same game and Zdeno Chara's hat trick against Carolina -- and started getting bolder with their pinches right around the time of Kampfer's arrival in December.

I dont know if anybody would have predicted that hed step right into a top-four role and 20-plus minutes a night, but the way he moves the puck and his overall feel for the game gives him a leg up, said Sweeney, who spends a good portionof his time helping to develop these youngsters with his prospect development camps each summer. He obviously has good skating ability to move station-to-station or get up the ice to start moving the puck in transition. I think thats obviously a big part of his game.

I would say the teams need and Kampfers skills lined up pretty well when he was called up. Lets be honest, for all of the negative media slants and fan reaction, at times weve missed Dennis Wideman, who was a good puck transition guy and a good power-play guy. Steve has stepped in and really replaced that in a lot of ways.

What's in store
The biggest question that Kampfer needs to answer will arrive starting tonight against the Carolina Hurricanes. With the games ratcheting up in intensity before hitting a fever pitch once the playoffs begin, surviving and thriving is going to become a lot more difficult for 22-year-old Kampfer.

Just look at Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang. Hes an All-Star caliber defenseman now, but he wasalso scratched in a run to the Stanley Cup three two years ago when the action got too heavy for him. Penguins coach Dan Bylsma went withsteady veteranDaryl Sydor in place of Letang during the Stanley Cup finals despite the rookies offensive contributions during the regular season.

Its certainly possible the same kind of thing could happen with Kampfer during an extended run through the playoffs, but theres been no evidence yet that it will need to happen.

The Bruins cant possibly know how Kampfer is going to react when he becomes more of a physical target as has happened in the last two or three games prior to the All-Star break.

They certainly cant predict what will happen when the playoff bullets start flying.

That is the biggest reason a veteran top-two defenseman with puck-moving abilities and power play quarterback experience is the No. 1 item on Bostons trade deadline shopping list with quality veterans like Sergei Gonchar, Tomas Kaberle and Joni Pitkanen all potentially available.

But the Bruins are careful not to rule out Kampfer raising his level of play as the pressure mounts. Theyve scouted and observed the young player enough to know that he doesnt back down and doesnt give an inch in competitive situations, and thats as much a part of his hockey DNA as the shiny offensive skills he brings to the table.

Obviously as Kampfer goes around the league and plays every team, theyre going to get a book on him just like a goaltender, said Sweeney. They might trap him a little more and see if he can keep picking apart teams consistently. They might also put him in battle situations realizing they can test his strength and ability to keep containment in cycle situations. They might chip it by him and take away his mobility, and get it on him that way.

Hes got to understand that its an evolving process as he goes around the league, and during things like the playoffs -- where the action gets faster and faster hes going to have to continue making those adjustments. But all that being said, hes done a good job so far. I have a firm belief hes going to continue that, but those are going to be challenges. Hes played to his strengths so far, and he just needs to continue recognizing any weaknesses that other teams are going to try and exploit.

No matter what happens down the stretch with Kampfer this season, the Bruins know they have a keeper at the defensemen position. Each time the 22-year-old takes the ice its a win for the youngster in his first NHL experience and a victory for an organization that did everything right in pulling off the toughest trick in hockey: uncovering and developing a young puck-moving defenseman in the harsh, punishing NHL world.

Kampfer is a keeper in every sense of the word, and the Bruins were far ahead of the curve on that one.

Joe Haggerty can be reached at jhaggerty@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Joe on Twitter at http:twitter.comHackswithHaggs

Haggerty: Bruins get chance to show good results weren't just short term

Haggerty: Bruins get chance to show good results weren't just short term

The mission for the Bruins on their four-game road swing through the West Coast is certainly to keep the momentum going, but it’s also to quell any talk that the positive results will be short-lived following the coaching change.

The Bruins won there first three games interim head coach Bruce Cassidy headed into the five-day “bye week”, and they’ll come out on the other side with a potentially dangerous road swing through California that will finish up in Dallas next weekend. 

The Black and Gold have gone into death spirals before on the Cali trip, so that’s always a danger when going coast-to-coast to face tough teams in the Sharks, Ducks and Kings.

There’s also the fact that NHL teams are 3-10-2 as of Saturday afternoon in the first game coming back from the five-day midseason vacation. That means the B’s are going to face a stiff uphill battle on Sunday night against the Pacific Division-leading Sharks. 

The challenge is going to be there for the Bruins to answer all of those challenges when they’ve shrunk away from such adversity most of the season. It gives the Bruins yet another chance to show that the three games aren’t merely a sugar-high after cages had been rattled and is instead something that Boston sustains over the season’s final two-plus months.

“Our thinking is to try to win every game. We know the standings. We know it’s pretty tight. We put ourselves in some of the games in tough situations. Now, we’ve got to climb up and fight for every point,” said Zdeno Chara. “It’s going to be very important that we do that and play that way until the end.

“We can look at the standings as much as we want. I think that we really have to focus on how we play, how we want to go into every game, and what we can do to get as many points as possible.”

The good news for the Bruins is that the teams chasing them in the standings really haven’t gained ground on them, and they enter Saturday still in a playoff spot. So, the mathematics don’t look as dire for Boston as they did going into their rest period, and now they should be energized, recharged and highly motivated headed into the final 24 games of the season.

There’s also the fact that the Bruins were playing exciting, aggressive and winning hockey due to some of the tweaks made by Cassidy after taking control of the team. He finally got some production from the third line after putting forwards Frank Vatrano, Ryan Spooner and Jimmy Hayes together, a combo he never truly gave a look because he didn’t trust them to do the job defensively. Cassidy immediately placed 21-year-old Peter Cehlarik into a top-six role with power-play time straight from the AHL. That’s something one almost never saw happen with rookies and inexperienced guys during Julien’s run.

The B’s defensemen corps scored four goals in the three wins and showed aggressive, timely risk-taking to produce offense when playing it safe was normally the call of the day under Julien. The forwards were avoiding the low-to-high passing to the point that so often resulted in perimeter shots from the Bruins in the offensive zone, and instead attacked the net down low with the forwards looking to put some anxiety into the opponent’s D-zone coverage.

It all worked and it all looked remarkably different from the way the Bruins played in the opening 55 games.

“It’s something we need to bottle up and not change our approach, not change what we’re doing, make sure we’re moving [during the bye] and not just sitting idle and getting rusty,” said David Backes last weekend headed into the bye. “Make sure that mentally, we can have those same sort of mindsets for every guy to be contributing. It’s something that doesn’t show up on the score sheet, but guys are recognized in here for doing those things and that’s winning culture. That’s what we’re building.”

The Bruins now get their chance to prove this is a permanent change to a winning culture rather than a short term, three-game adrenaline rush after watching their longtime coach get fired. It won’t be easy, but it shouldn’t be for the Black and Gold if they’re finally going to earn their way into the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in three seasons. 

Saturday, Feb. 18: NHL more likely in Seattle than NBA?

Saturday, Feb. 18: NHL more likely in Seattle than NBA?

Here are all the links from around the hockey world, and what I’m reading, while hoping that Purple Passion doesn’t try the same comeback as Zima.

*A Seattle investor says that an NHL team coming to that city is much more likely than a return by the NBA to the Pacific Northwestern city.

*Gare Joyce writes eloquently about the loneliness of a hockey scout, and how that world can sometimes come to a crashing halt.  

*Good piece from Arpon Basu giving the sights and sounds of Claude Julien’s second stint behind the bench with the Montreal Canadiens.

*The agent for Russian player Maxim Shalunov says there is a “10 percent chance” that he’s going to sign with the Chicago Blackhawks.

*Mike Babcock says not to expect any big trade deadline deals from the Toronto Maple Leafs as they push for a playoff spot.

*Henrik Zetterberg reflects on a difficult season with the Detroit Red Wings where it looks like things might finally come down to a crashing halt.

http://www.detroitnews.com/story/sports/nhl/red-wings/2017/02/17/red-wings-zetterberg-reflects-tough-season/98064530/

*The Minnesota Wild have underrated depth on their team, and the Hockey News says it might just be their scariest attribute.

*For something completely different: as referenced above, it looks like that Zima drink of the 1990s is trying to make a comeback. I was in college when the Zima people were seemingly flooding campuses with advertising and samples back in the day.