Campbell vs. Kaberle - If you have followed my articles then by now you know my distain for defensemen. It is at least somewhat reasonable to say that my distain is the result of drafting Mike Green with an astonishingly high pick in my most important keeper league only to watch him degrade (far too rapidly) into a lemon. This article is not going to be about Green however. I’m still much too shell shocked by his complete disintegration to write about him.
What this week will focus on is two veteran defensemen who have the sort of track record that you can bank on, which, quite frankly, is a rare but invaluable trait for a defenseman in fantasy hockey. This week in Cage Match we feature Brian Campbell and Tomas Kaberle.
In my opinion nothing is more important than situation for a defenseman. This is technically true for all players but as I have said many times before, defensemen are much more reliant on their teammates to produce points than other players because they are farther back in the play. Defensemen are rarely the primary playmaker and even less frequently are they the goal scorer. If you aren’t scoring many goals and you aren’t setting too many up then you had better have some damn good teammates. So situation and more specifically, situational luck is a very important factor for determining the success of defensemen.
Having said that, when a defenseman proves year in, year out that he can produce points then you have to accept his talent as more than just situational luck. Campbell and Kaberle have more than proven their talents. Since the lockout Cambpell and Kaberle have been among the premier puckmoving defensemen in the NHL. There are few other defensemen I would consider as safer bets to reach 40 points in a given season, which is a benchmark for relevance in many fantasy leagues.
What is most impressive about both Campbell and Kaberle is that neither one totally stands out as an offensive defenseman. Neither possesses a particularly booming shot, nor are they the sort to frequently gamble on plays by jumping into the rush. They are more economical. They excel at the outlet pass. They also provide an extreme sense of calm at the blueline that allows them to make the right plays under pressure and also efficiently manage a powerplay.
This is, however, a very general description of their individual skills. Campbell, for instance, is certainly the more daring of the two players, both in his willingness to jump into the play but also to play physically. Still, the similarities exist. Both players’ chief asset is the ability to make smart passes, which allows others to produce offense. They so excel at this skill that they have been able to consistently produce offense over the years despite how reliant they are on others. Of course, this reliance has not come without a cost.
Before he was traded to the Florida Panthers, Campbell found his role shifting each season with the Chicago Blackhawks. Campbell’s playing time remained high over the years with the Blackhawks but the team was going another direction with their distribution of powerplay minutes. Campbell went from skating 4:23 per game on the powerplay in 2008/09 to just 2:02 per game in 2010-11. Add in Campbell’s injury woes and the Blackhawks depleted roster and it is little wonder Campbell’s production had dropped by half from his first season in Chicago.
This season, in Florida, Campbell was given the opportunity of a lifetime. His powerplay time was back up to over four minutes per game but he also led the league in ice time by skating 26:53 minutes per game. If you give a player of Campbell’s talents that kind of ice time he cannot help but succeed, even playing for a team that finishes bottom four in league scoring. This is not to say he did not earn that ice time or his points but rather to say that circumstance was back on his side.
To elaborate on this, one can take it a step further and analyze how those minutes were deployed. We know that over for over four minutes per game Campbell was sent out on the Panthers powerplay a unit that finished seventh in the league in efficiency. Campbell also received 54% of his shifts starting in the offensive zone against some of the opponent’s weakest lines. For a player skating as many minutes as Campbell to receive such sheltered treatment borders on outrageous.
I find it hard to believe that Campbell could be put in as good a situation in the future. First off, there is no way Campbell can continue to play those minutes without getting hurt. Secondly, the Panthers have a couple of quality young defenders who could see a boost in ice time – Dmitri Kulikov (21:54 per game) and Erik Gudbranson (14:11 per game) – along with several good prospects. Perhaps Campbell can continue to live the good life for another season but eventually things will dry up.
Still, there is also room for improvement. As mentioned, the Panthers were one of the worst offensive teams in the league this season but they also boast one of the most loaded farm systems in the league with several top offensive prospects on the cusp of the NHL. Maybe Campbell’s fantastic ice time will take a hit but he could soon be playing on a team whose depth rivals that of the 2008/09 Blackhawks.
My personal opinion is that Campbell benefitted from a good deal of luck this past season and that his luck will catch up with him for next season resulting in a regression but I am also optimistic that in two years the Panthers will have enough offensive talent to counterbalance any reduction in ice time and luck Campbell sees. The end result will be the sort of fluctuation that is maddeningly expected of defensemen. In other words, Campbell is good but don’t overrate the season he just had.
Kaberle, on the other hand, has reached the low point Campbell was at just one season ago. He has been completely written off – forsaken as an overrated has-been. One cannot help but feel that the biggest reason for this forsaking is simply backlash for the amount of hype Kaberle’s trade out of Toronto received. The whole thing was a near-two-year-long media-driven masquerade orchestrated by Brian Burke to extract the absolute maximum value for Kaberle as possible. Kudos to Burke for pulling it off but the result was that Kaberle became so blatantly overrated that he is now underrated. Obviously the 31 points he scored in 73 games (his lowest per game scoring in any season since before the lockout) for the Carolina Hurricanes and Montreal Canadiens only helped to reinforce these feelings of resentment but I still think we are overrating Kaberle’s fall.
I just think the overall toll of Kaberle’s trade out of Toronto was too much of a distraction for him for success to be truly possible. It is true that Kaberle was moved to a much higher scoring and much more competitive Boston team with a winning culture but he was moved their mid-season without a chance to develop chemistry. A guy like Kaberle thrives on chemistry because he is much more passive than aggressive. He cannot force things to happen. His ability to produce points is predicated on his ability to get the puck moving in the right direction and to get it to the right people. In Boston his numbers fell off because he was never comfortable. It was also a very small sample size.
You could argue a similar lack of chemistry derailed Kaberle in Carolina. The presence of former Leafs head coach Paul Maurice was a main reason Kaberle signed in Carolina last offseason and should have been an aid to Kaberle’s comfort levels he was still playing with mostly new teammates in a brand new city. The team was also cratered by injuries and other serious dysfunction to the point where Maurice was fired after 24 games. Kaberle never really had a chance in Carolina and was soon after traded to the Montreal Canadiens.
It was in Montreal where things started to turn around. In 43 games with the Habs Kaberle scored a reasonable 22 points, which prorates to over-40 for an 82-game season. With the Habs, Kaberle became relevant again.
It is worth mentioning that, in Montreal, Kaberle only skated over 20 minutes in a game four times. His role was significantly diminished from what it was in Toronto. Still, he was receiving over three minutes per game in powerplay time and saw his ice time increase towards the end of the season. It will be interesting to see where Kaberle’s ice time goes in the future.
We know Kaberle will be a part of the Canadiens going forward but the rest of the Habs blueline remains questionable. Markov made his return at the end of last season but after so many knee surgeries I consider him about as relevant as the Blue Jackets. That leaves Gorges as the only other Habs blueliner with a contract for next season. Subban should be back and I suspect a lot of Kaberle and Subban on the top powerplay unit but there is some uncertainty there. The Habs will also have very little cap space after dealing with extensions for Subban as well as Carey Price. That means the Habs will likely return a very similar squad as last year.
It is safe to say the new GM and head coach have their work cut out for them as Montreal finished 19th in the league in offense and 28th in powerplay efficiency. I think that Kaberle can help with the latter as he has always been a proficient powerplay defenseman. In fact, last season’s 16 PPP were the lowest Kaberle recorded in a season since the lockout. With more time to build chemistry as well as a bounce back seasons for Plekanec and Gionta and maybe even some salary cap gymnastics with the Gomez contract the Habs could see their offense rebound in a big way and Kaberle would certainly benefit.
Now you are probably wondering why it is that Campbell could be so successful in a new environment while Kaberle would flounder. In my opinion the answer is simply a case of differing personalities. As mentioned earlier Campbell is the more aggressive of the two, which would allow him to impose his will more fiercely than Kaberle would in a new environment. We also know that Kaberle is a fierce family man dedicated to being close to his family. Changing environments cannot be easy for him. Add in the fact that Kaberle, while having spent over a decade playing in North America, is still an immigrant with a different culture and native language. I would suspect that changing cities would be all the more difficult for a guy like Kaberle.
Now that Kaberle is settled in Montreal I am expecting positive things. He may never again see the ice time he did in Toronto, nor may he be quite the same player but Kaberle is still a proficient puck mover. With enough ice time Kaberle should return to relevance. He may even surprise you with his scoring next season. Of course, I am not advocating Kaberle over Campbell. Rather, I am using the example of Campbell to remind you that defensemen often rebound and that the safest bets lie with those with a strong track record.
I strongly recommend that you not overrate Campbell going into next season. Another 50-point season will be tough to pull off. Once you do reach that point in your drafts where you are considering Campbell please try to keep Kaberle in mind, his production should not be too far behind.