EDMONTON — If hockey is a game of inches, then the distance between Jack Campbell’s ears is the key to his future as an NHL goalie.
It’s not even a dirty little secret in Edmonton. More so an open conversation, as it was in Toronto when Campbell played for the Maple Leafs.
The element of Jack Campbell’s game that needs improvement isn’t his glove hand, his quickness down low or his rebound control. It’s not how he plays the puck, or his ability to play three or four games in a row.
Playing the most mentally taxing position in the sport, Campbell’s mental approach is what he had to address, the part of his game that relegated the $5-million starter to the backup role last season.
You see, Campbell faults himself on every goal — good or bad. And he carries that burden through the rest of the game, into the post-game dressing room, the interviews, and all the way home to bed that evening. He doesn’t forget fast enough — or at all — a cardinal sin in a position manned by players with some of the shortest memories in hockey history.
“That’s something I’ve done my whole career, and somehow managed to get away with it until last year,” Campbell said on Wednesday, as the Edmonton Oilers went through their medicals on Day 1 of training camp. “Then there was an exclamation on it … no hiding last year. It kind of just showed me that I needed to fix it. To learn from it.”
As training camp opens with hopes higher than they’ve been in 30-some years here in Northern Alberta, one of the few true question marks lies in goal.
There, we’ll watch to see if Calder Trophy candidate Stuart Skinner can slay the dragon that is the sophomore slump, and if Campbell can reclaim his game enough to avoid the buy-out talk that will ensue if he remains a $5-million backup on this cash-strapped club.
If Campbell can push Skinner, that will help.
If he comes back with another set of stats like last season — .888 saves percentage, 3.41 goals-against average — and Skinner dips, this whole thing could go off the rails.
So it starts with the veteran Campbell, and his quest to right his mental game. He sought help this summer.
“I got some great people in my life that I was fortunate enough to meet and work with,” he said. “I’ve been just working hard on different things, (to) not beat myself up so much. Just really allowing myself to be me.”
His general manager, Ken Holland, knows well the feeling of fishing a puck out of his net. Holland was a minor-league goalie for nine seasons who got into just four NHL games. He knows a goalie has to “try to sort out when you take responsibility, and how much responsibility to take,” Holland began.
“Being in goal, when one goes in the big red light goes on. There’s a lot of action, fans are screaming,” Holland said. “If you make a mistake up front, a red light doesn’t go on. If you make a mistake on defence, not all the time a light goes on.
“Maybe, at times, (Campbell) takes a little bit too much responsibility,” Holland admitted. “But I know that I’d rather have that than the guy that doesn’t take any responsibility.”
We recall Mike Smith, as confident a man as ever has donned hockey’s tools of ignorance.
Smith could give a puck away and then whiff on a 50-foot wrister, and when you asked him about it, he’d give you a look that terrified. His answer was always some mix of, “What about the other 30 I stopped?” and “Look, pal, until you’ve stood in there and faced those pucks, you don’t have a clue what it’s like.”
Mike Smith never played bad. Even when he played bad.
Whereas Campbell is the guy who is forever looking to carry the burden of a loss — even when there’s plenty of blame to go around.
“That’s just who he is, right? He’s just that type of selfless guy, and you just have to make sure he doesn’t take on too much of that,” said long-time teammate Zach Hyman.
Hyman, whose mental approach to the game is beyond reproach, will spend some time with his goalie this season. On the plane, over dinner, and in the room.
“You’re talking to him all the time — not just about hockey — and making him feel comfortable. He’s very much a person who takes a lot on himself and takes a lot of pressure on himself,” Hyman said. “I try to tell him, ‘It’s the ultimate team sport. When there are breakdowns in hockey, the last breakdown is the goalie. So the last breakdown gets the brunt of the blame.’”
As for Campbell, he’s reached a crossroads and he knows it.
He turns 32 in January, and he’s never been on a team with this good a chance to win a Stanley Cup. But if Campbell doesn’t clear this mental hurdle, he won’t be here a year from now.
We asked him: “Do you need to just learn to say, ‘I don’t care whose fault it is. I’ve got to move on here.’
“Absolutely. You hit it right on the head there,” Campbell said. “I love to judge myself pretty heavily. (The key is) letting that go, and just playing hockey.
“I still have that standard of wanting to save every shot. But not necessarily losing a week’s worth of sleep over it.”