by Jason Pearson | AHL On The Beat
Apologies to all the mathematical and statistical whizzes out there. I’m a Big Ten grad and I’m well aware that correlation does not always equal causation. But play along with me here.
Grand Rapids Griffins fifth-year pro Colin Campbell, one of the club’s most reliable penalty killers, sustained an upper-body injury in the early goings of the season and wound up a spectator for 13 games from Oct. 12-Nov. 16.
During that baker’s dozen, the Griffins’ penalty kill went 42-for-56 (75.0 percent) and plummeted to 26th in the league at 76.2 percent efficiency for the season. On three separate occasions, the team surrendered a trio of power play goals.
After Campbell returned and was immediately injected back into the unit, it killed off 27 consecutive penalties spanning more than eight games. Entering Wednesday’s action, the Griffins’ penalty kill had gone 41-for-its-last-48 (85.4 percent), an increase of more than 10 percentage points compared to his absence.
Certainly, other confounding variables are intertwined here. Most prominently, players gaining familiarity not only with each other, but also with the structure and philosophy preached by assistant coach Matt Macdonald – overseer of the penalty kill – and head coach Ben Simon.
But still, one can’t help but wonder about Campbell’s effect.
“It was a huge loss,” fellow penalty-killing maestro and linemate Dominic Turgeon said. “We were struggling without him actually for a little bit there. When we got that presence back, we really felt it and the PK started to click better.”
“The last 15 or so games, we’ve really started to come into our own. We’re having a lot of confidence with it right now, which is good,” Macdonald said after practice last week. “Soupy’s been a huge part of it. He’s one of the first guys over the bench every time and he’s been eating up a lot of minutes. It’s no surprise that that helps us have success on the kill.”
The Griffins’ first-year bench boss undoubtedly agrees with the importance of Campbell to the four-man unit.
“I just think he brings a stable, steady-Eddie mentality,” said Simon. “He’s a guy who’s done it before and has had success doing it before. Just his presence on the kill gives the group, in whole, guys who have done it before and proven penalty killers.”
Stats and opinions aside, it is no secret Campbell is frequently one of the first players called upon after a Grand Rapids penalty. This is not lost on the 6-foot-1, 200-pound winger, as he takes great pride in his shutdown responsibilities.
“I embrace the challenge and it’s fun,” he said. “If we kill off three or four penalties, most likely we have a better chance at winning. It is so special-teams-oriented now, you see a lot of one-goal margins.”
Since 2015-16, Campbell’s second full professional season and first with a function on the penalty kill, he has been on the ice for 56 of 132 (42.4%) opponent power play goals when dressed.
His role on the unit was fairly nonexistent as a rookie in 2014-15 under Jeff Blashill, but as someone who had been involved in all situations during a four-year career at Lake Superior State, the Toronto native approached then-head coach Todd Nelson the following season prior to the team’s opening road trip in California.
“Right from the first year I knew I had to get a niche. I didn’t play much on the penalty kill my first year but I did a lot of watching and a lot of learning,” Campbell noted. “I knew that was going to be one of the things I really wanted to contribute to the team that (second) year. I think Nelly kind of rolled the dice with me and put me out there and started to see that it worked. From there, it just took off.”
That year, Simon was in his first season as an assistant under Nelson and was charged with orchestrating the penalty kill. He notes the proactiveness of Campbell advocating for himself as a positive when it came to developing his role.
“We started trying to find a way for a guy who works, is a good skater and a pretty smart player, to find him more ice time,” Simon said. “He accepted that role and embraced it and got better as time went on.”
In one of the more situationally crucial areas of the sport that is often credited with deciding outcomes, Campbell was able to foster a significant level of confidence from the coaches. He stressed the relevance of understanding their ideas and philosophies behind the penalty kill and then finding not only where he could fit in but also add his own touch.
“If you do everything they ask, block shots and get pucks out, you can earn a coach’s trust pretty quick and that’s what happened in my second year,” he added. “With that comes responsibility. If you’re up to it, then you’re going to get those chances and that longer leash to be able to put your spin on it and kill off penalties day in and day out.”
Fast forward one year later to 2016-17 and the arrival of the aforementioned Turgeon. A 2014 draft pick by Detroit, Turgeon entered the fold in some ways comparable to Campbell, in that he was looking for an identity within the team that would ultimately hoist the Calder Cup on home ice at season’s end.
Turgeon’s ability to win draws helped lead the coaches to try him on the penalty kill, where he ended up alongside Campbell. It can be tricky to pinpoint an exact reason behind their uncanny chemistry, but ask the two players themselves, the coaches or anybody within the dressing room, and it’s clear they form a dynamic duo. The two have also spent a significant amount of five-on-five time together.
“They think the game very similar and there’s just something there between them where it seems when they get on that kill they just work really well in tandem together,” Macdonald offered.
“For some reason he’s found a niche and chemistry with Turgeon on the kill, and between the two of them they read off each other pretty well,” Simon said.
To demonstrate, Campbell and Turgeon provided one of the more memorable moments during the team’s march to the 2017 Calder Cup. In Game 2 of the opening round against Milwaukee with the Griffins nursing a two-goal advantage midway through the third period, the pair showcased their penalty killing expertise by playing keep away beneath the Admirals’ goal line and then trapping the puck in the corner, icing 40 seconds off the minor in the process.
With plenty of undermanned reps accumulated by this point, what is it about Campbell that makes him so darn dependable? Obviously, the nuances of stick and body positioning equate, as does seeing the opposing five-man unit on film. Having been around the league for a half decade and with 300 career games in reach this season, he’s also become accustomed to tendencies from certain players or teams.
Macdonald, in his first season in Grand Rapids, presents one more reason.
“He brings a lot of questions to me and different ideas to say the least. He gives a lot of feedback.”
But there are the other aspects that aren’t as easy to detect or coach. Campbell was swift to identify anticipation as the one word to illustrate a skilled penalty killer.
“If you can know what they’re going to do, you can read off that then you can react accordingly,” Campbell said. “There’s always going to be a man open but if you can anticipate and make reads quicker, you’re going to get to the puck, be in shooting lanes and get pucks out. All of those things that make a good penalty killer.”
Macdonald suggested his own variation on Campbell’s take.
“Not only his work ethic but his thinking of it. He reads where that power play is going, what they’re trying to do and how they’re trying to develop it. He gets to their point of attack and he’s able to shut it down. It’s great because you see a lot of frustration on other teams when he’s on the ice.”
Whether it’s anticipation or work ethic or a combination of everything above, Campbell has established himself as a valuable commodity on the ice. So maybe the correlation-doesn’t-equal causation theorem hasn’t completely been disproved in this case, but there’s no denying Campbell’s importance to the penalty kill and the Griffins as they chase a seventh consecutive Calder Cup Playoff bid.