Bruins find a moving piece
Kampfer’s skating a boon on blue line
Steve Kampfer is a true NHL freshman, much like he was upon arriving on the Michigan campus as a 17-year-old in 2006. No need then to transition to the NCAA Division 1 game as an older prep school player or twentysomething postgrad candidate. These days, he’s an increasingly important part of the Bruins defense corps after tuning up his pro game for only a couple of months in Providence and turning 22 in September.
“It’s definitely a learning curve, when you’re about to turn 18 and coming into college,’’ Kampfer recalled the other day, the Bruins in the midst of a 3-0-2 road trip that culminated in Monday night’s impressive 2-1 win in Toronto. “That first year you are shell-shocked — you have to do school and play hockey. To manage both at same time, you can get kind of set back, and I think that happened my freshman year.
“But once I got control of school and the whole situation — school and hockey — I started to go forward my sophomore, junior, and senior years.’’
Be it the brief primer in the AHL or just his pro-game tool kit, one with skating skills aplenty, Kampfer thus far has segued seamlessly and impressively to the Boston back line.
“I watch him out there and I get excited,’’ said veteran center Marc Savard. “He can skate, move the puck, and you can see he’s not afraid to be out there making plays. He’s been impressive.’’
Seasoned blue liner Dennis Seidenberg, often Kampfer’s partner, has been equally taken by the wheeling, dealing Kampfer, who grew up only minutes from the Michigan campus.
“We talk a lot, but there’s not much I have to tell him, really,’’ noted Seidenberg. “Good player, smart with the puck. He gets it. Nice to see.’’
So, is Kid Kampfer the one, the highly sought, ever-elusive puck-moving defenseman the Bruins have been searching for since, oh, Ray Bourque headed to Colorado a decade ago? To suggest so is a bit premature, even in a region that has been spoiled by little-known Michigan grads not only exceeding, but obliterating, all expectations (see: Foxborough).
However, it’s not too early to take notice of Kampfer’s willingness to make plays, both handle and push the puck, even look for that rare hole in the offensive zone to exploit. Late in Saturday night’s game in Buffalo, he jumped up from his spot at right defense and picked apart Michigan State product Ryan Miller, with a quick dash and quicker forehand finish of a pinpoint Tyler Seguin feed.
A tremendous play by the two rookies, both of whom, if unleashed by the coaching staff, quickly could become core contributors to a club that postures itself as a Cup contender.
“Jump up in the play, move the puck, make the quick outlet pass,’’ said Kampfer, musing over his role in Michigan, listing the same things he was told to do in Providence. “I have tried to do that up here, and will continue to do that as along as I am up.
“But it is one of those things that you are still young, still learning the game, and I’m not the kind of player that’s going to make that flashy pass through a couple of guys’ legs. I am going to make the simple play. I am just going to try to get it out of the zone, get us going on offense to create chances.’’
With risk comes reward, but also sometimes failure. The goal-scoring foray in Buffalo was impressive, showing great maturity on the parts of Seguin and Kampfer. But there was also Kampfer’s colossal boo-boo at the start of the trip, when he attempted to wheel the puck from deep in his own end as Florida’s Michael Frolik closed on the forecheck.
Hockey 101: chip the puck off the wall, deflate the forecheck, rely upon an alert winger to continue the puck’s forward motion. Kampfer instead dished toward Savard, into the defensive slot. Whoops. Frolik made the pick and dished to an oncoming David Booth, who put the puck in the Boston net with only 61 seconds gone in the second period.
“Hey, he’s going to make mistakes, we know that, you have to live with it and you have to show confidence,’’ said coach Claude Julien. “It’s not an easy position to learn, for sure. That was an obvious mistake there [in Florida]. But you work with him and you also know he’s going to make some very good plays, too. We like what we’ve seen, for sure.’’
The Bruins thought they had their puck-moving prayers answered with the trade that sent Brad Boyes to St. Louis for Dennis Wideman. The ex-Blues back liner had the skills and requisite amount of daring to fill the role, but eventually general manager Peter Chiarelli and crew grew tired of his erratic, inconsistent play and costly mental mistakes; he was traded to Florida for Nathan Horton.
Wideman could spark a play, sometimes sensationally so, but he could also burn down the house. In a very small test sample thus far, Kampfer appears to have the required skill set, dollops of the requisite daring, but a keener sense of when to err to the conservative side.
Wideman too often either failed to sense trouble or simply opted to ignore it, if not tempt it, leaving Boston goalies to pluck the results of his hubris out of their net.
“Skating’s always been one of my assets,’’ said Kampfer, “being able to jump up in the play and know that I have the speed to get back. That is something I have to give a lot of credit to strength and conditioning coaches at Michigan — the way we work out in summer, train, it’s all speed and endurance, something that has gotten me ready to go for season.
Kampfer, his rights obtained in trade with Anaheim last March, is not from a traditional hockey family. The Michigan campus essentially in his backyard, he developed his love of the game from watching his cousins play youth hockey. He started to attend Michigan games as a preschooler and remembers being 6 years old and telling his mother that he wanted to wear the Wolverines’ trademark helmet.
“And sure enough it came true,’’ he said. “All my hockey interest came from watching my cousins play all the time. My mom and dad were both golfers — still are — because mom played golf at Michigan and dad played at Bowling Green.
“I’ve kind of got the golf gene in me, but obviously hockey’s more my thing. I still play golf, and I can be good at it, very good if I’m just out there to have fun. But if I turn it into a mental game, uh-uh, then everything turns around.’’
The Bruins arrived home via charter flight soon after the win in Toronto, which featured 36 saves by Tuukka Rask and goals by Horton and Savard. Julien gave his charges yesterday off, but the full crew will be in uniform today for a 10:30 a.m. practice in Wilmington, prior to taking on the Wild tomorrow night on Causeway Street. It will be Boston’s only matchup this season with the St. Paulists.