By Joe Haggerty
BOSTON – You hear the same thing over and over again in pro sports.
It’s like a catchy 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 it’s drafting and developing young players that build and sustain the most successful organizations in any of the four major sports.
It’s drafting and development, and it’s 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 B’s, in particular, needed somebody skilled in the art of moving the puck to step into the Boston breach of puck-transitioning defenseman after Dennis Wideman was dealt away to Florida for 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 doesn’t appear to be an impact player. Tommy Cross is still finishing up at Boston College. German defenseman Dennis Ruel was a miss as a fifth-rounder in the 2007 draft.
Armed with the realistic scenario that the Bruins didn’t 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 Administration/college 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.
“It’s really a testament to the organizational outlook on things. [General manager] Peter [Chiarelli’s] 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 they’re identifying talent all the time.”
Weisbrod also kept his eye on other team’s 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 team’s draft picks that forced their way onto his radar.
The Bruins front-office execs have come to welcome that “bugging,” as it’s 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 didn’t 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. That’s something that’s obviously very important to make the jump [to the NHL] and more than anything he was wildly competitive. He was a mature competitor. He didn’t 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 both Kampfer and Bartkowski if 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 since emboldened the Bruins to continue mining that resource, and this season the B’s 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 can’t clutch and grab, you’ve 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 out by 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 he’s 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 B’s college scouting eyes and ears still remembers exactly what caught that eye in a game Kampfer won’t soon ever forget for all the wrong reasons.
We’ll 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 people’s 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. That’s 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 Chiarelli’s biggest strengths as a general manager is the intelligence and wisdom to listen to his entire staff and gain consensus, and that’s exactly what made it possible to retool their organizational depth on defense.
The trade for Kampfer at least year’s trade deadline wasn’t a heralded move, given the youngster’s relative anonymity in the NHL world and Boston’s NHL need at the time for 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 Kampfer’s game, but that never deterred the Bruins once they’d 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 penned in his multiple reports on each of them. They’ve both done that while making their NHL debuts this season, and Kampfer has truly blossomed as something rare and precious within the B’s 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. He’s been the rare rookie that’s almost immediately earned the confidence of the coaching staff, and he’s averaging more than 18 minutes of ice time per night while logging big power play minutes.
Where the Bruins had big time blueline questions 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 a 22-year-old rookie on an emergency basis when Mark Stuart broken his hand, and he doesn’t appear destined for that return trip to Providence.
Kampfer’s 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 can’t 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 NHL schedule -- 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."
Kampfer’s 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 you’ll 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. It’s one of those things where you have all the resources, and the entire staff is basically cheering you on. It’s 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 B’s, 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 unit in 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 don’t know if anybody would have predicted that he’d 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 portion of 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 that’s obviously a big part of his game.
“I would say [the team’s need and Kampfer’s skills] lined up pretty well when he was called up. Let’s be honest, for all of the negative media slants and fan reaction, at times we’ve 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. He’s an All-Star caliber defenseman now, but he was also 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 with steady veteran Daryl Sydor in place of Letang during the Stanley Cup finals despite the rookie’s offensive contributions during the regular season.
It’s certainly possible the same kind of thing could happen with Kampfer during an extended run through the playoffs, but there’s been no evidence yet that it will need to happen.
The Bruins can’t 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 can’t 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 Boston’s 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. They’ve scouted and observed the young player enough to know that he doesn’t back down and doesn’t give an inch in competitive situations, and that’s 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, they’re 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.
“He’s got to understand that it’s an evolving process as he goes around the league, and during things like the playoffs -- where the action gets faster and faster – he’s going to have to continue making those adjustments. But all that being said, he’s done a good job so far. I have a firm belief he’s going to continue that, but those are going to be challenges. He’s 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 it’s 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 email@example.com. Follow Joe on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HackswithHaggs