EDMONTON — The talent has flowed West for a few summers now, from the Toronto Maple Leafs to the Edmonton Oilers. Sometimes it comes in the form of a rehabilitation project, like a Tyson Barrie or Cody Ceci, others in the person of a slam-dunk signing like Zach Hyman — an excellent player the Leafs simply would not afford.
This fall it is goaltender Jack Campbell, who arrives in The Big E as something in between: good enough to have become a legit NHL No. 1 while in Toronto, but like so many others, on his way out of The Big Smoke with a playoff resume as empty as a Mar-a-Lago file folder.
Whatever the trend, the first three ex-Leafs have been excellent acquisitions for the Oilers, and as Leon Draisaitl said of Campbell, “Let’s hope that trend continues.”
With a five-year, $25 million deal to man the nets in Edmonton, Campbell is finally where he was supposed to be all along: starting in goal for a Stanley Cup contender. Exactly what the Dallas Stars had in mind when they drafted him 11th overall in 2010.
It’s taken a while, to be sure. But the longer the journey, the sweeter the destination, right?
“We’re here now,” Campbell said Friday. “You know, I just want to be the best I can.”
Of course, his nickname is “Soupy.” But if we’re going to plow that field, his career has been more like a cold, chunky Gazpacho than a warm, tasty bisque.
Who is this handsome, bearded ‘tendy who the Oilers have hung their Stanley Cup hopes on for the next five years?
Well, he’s the 30-year-old son of a freshly retired Port Huron, Mich. electrical parts distributor and wholesaler. The family business was waiting for Campbell to be a third-generation owner-operator, but he was hoping to get a different charge out of life: “I just wanted to play hockey.”
A confirmed “cat Dad,” Campbell scratched and clawed to get where he is. While Oilers fans watched No. 1 pick Taylor Hall on Opening Night that fall, Campbell would play in two NHL games over the next seven seasons, making two visits to the East Coast League since draft day 2010.
Dallas traded him to Los Angeles straight-up for a defenceman named Nick Ebert, who never played an NHL game. Then he moved with Kyle Clifford in a trade to Toronto.
“I learned a lot, I have gone through a lot of adversity, but I think playing in Toronto and different markets I played in prepared me for this moment,” he said. “The team’s ready to do special things, and my adversity was, you know, needed to be prepared to do that.
“Yeah, I’m ready for this. Can’t wait to get it going.”
Like Hyman before him, Campbell arrives with the “you’re gonna love this guy” guarantee from those who knew him as a Leaf. He is soft-spoken, looks you in the eye and says “Thanks” after a media scrum, and seems like the nicest of guys.
Of course, it is only September 9.
We saw last year’s goalie, Mike Smith, bare his teeth every now and again in a typically Canadian market that can make an NHL player go squirrely, with every radio Johnny a certified goaltending expert.
Is it much different out West, than back in the Centre of hockey’s Universe?
“More similarities, to be honest,” he chuckled. “It’s two amazing fan bases and the passion the fans have in both cities. No traffic (here). An easy drive to the rink.”
Campbell’s playoff resume in Toronto is comprised of two Game 7 losses: a 3-1 score against Montreal and Carey Price, 2-1 against Tampa and Andrei Vasilevskiy. He was abnormally hard on himself after the Tampa loss, a trait that has likely burdened him over the years, but Campbell’s performance was more “good enough, but not great enough” to get the suddenly low-scoring Leafs over their annual hump.
But as the old saying goes, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. And as Connor McDavid said this summer, “If you can be the starting goalie in Toronto, you can be the starting goalie anywhere.”
Campbell swears that he is ready for another crack in a different sweater, and history — or at least, recent Oilers history — says Edmonton is as good a place as any to right whatever went wrong down East.
“Getting that opportunity in Toronto to be a number one guy just gave me the feeling I was looking for my whole career,” Campbell said. “For Edmonton to believe in me and allowed me to be here for five years and to, you know, work with this group every single day and try to accomplish some amazing things.
“I’m just so excited and can't wait to get going.”