SAN JOSE, Calif. – Evgeni Nabokov was still in his goalie pads and skates after Monday’s practice when he began gently haranguing Brian Campbell about the proper way to play a certain defensive situation.
The San Jose Sharks’ new defenceman listened intently to Nabokov’s instructions. Then he broke up the strategy session – and his eavesdropping teammates – with a quick explanation for his play: “Maybe I don’t trust Nabby yet.”
Campbell can afford to joke. After just 17 games, trust abounds between the Sharks and their new teammate as they streak toward the playoffs.
“The way I’ve always been is if I’m not having fun, I’m not playing good,” Campbell said. “I’m having a lot of fun every day here.”
Campbell, the redheaded two-time all-star with a quick wit and superb puck-handling skills, has slipped seamlessly into a major role with the Sharks, who have the NHL’s second-best record entering their regular-season home finale Tuesday night against the Los Angeles Kings.
Campbell has 16 points already in San Jose, quarterbacking the power play and controlling the puck with all the grace and confidence the Sharks anticipated after swinging a high-risk trade last month to acquire him. After five weeks in San Jose, he’s eager for another playoff run following two straight trips to the conference finals with Buffalo.
“I feel comfortable now,” Campbell said. “It’s been enough games now where I fit in and know the guys well enough. I’m not worried about that going forward.”
San Jose hasn’t lost in regulation since before Campbell arrived, earning 36 points in its last 19 games to win the Pacific Division title. Campbell isn’t the only reason for this surge, but he’s high on the list.
“He’s much better than I thought he was – so much better, it’s ridiculous,” said Jeremy Roenick, another stellar addition to this season’s Sharks. “He reminds me of Paul Coffey, the way he can get all the way up the ice with a couple of strides. He’s a smart player that can log a lot of minutes, almost like our version of Scott Niedermayer.”
The rest of the Sharks also spout superlatives when they assess Campbell’s contributions. The club’s surge has been led by Joe Thornton’s scoring outbursts and Nabokov’s pursuit of the NHL’s top goaltending honours, but Campbell’s contributions are just as big.
“He loves to have the puck, and it’s changed our game,” coach Ron Wilson said. “A little less dump-and-chase and forechecking, and more into a controlled attack through the neutral zone. We’ll still use our size up front and forecheck, but we have to dump the puck less.”
Campbell’s puck-handling also prevents teams from forechecking too aggressively against the Sharks, because his agility allows him to find passing lanes around opponents to set up rushes the other way. Campbell sees those skills as a complement to San Jose’s impressive overall team speed.
And for style points, Campbell occasionally employs a 360-degree spin move to ditch a forechecker – or, in the case of a win over Montreal in his home debut last month, to get himself free for a goal.
“He’s put a new dimension in our game,” said Thornton, who has eight goals in the Sharks’ last five games. “He’s doing a lot of things we needed, and he’s doing them well every game. It’s great to get to play with him after all this time.”
Campbell and Thornton played summer youth hockey together in Ontario for most of a decade, and they stayed in touch when the former sixth-round pick crossed paths with the all-star Thornton in the NHL. They’re living together now, with Campbell crashing at Thornton’s home until he figures out where his future lies.
Campbell will be a free agent after the season, and the Sharks seem to have the salary-cap room to keep him. San Jose’s fans already made their feelings known, chanting “Sign him! Sign him!” after his first home game.
“He’s playing a role that this team never had somebody in before,” Roenick said. “The Sharks have got that big-time defenceman who can do everything now.”