When I was writing the individual explanations for the last edition of Defending Big D's Prospect Rankings back on March 11th, I had the following thoughts to say about Dallas Stars goaltending prospect Jack Campbell:
It's been a season that Campbell would like to forget. After posting a .942 save percentage last year he's dropped to a .888 right now, albeit after fighting through injuries early on. Which season is more indicative of his true skill and potential?
It was a fair question at the time. Campbell was simply lights-out in limited games for the Texas Stars in 2013-2014, but had fallen dramatically since then. Along with the ugly .888 save percentage, he had a horrible record of only 3-11-5 at that point. He'd completely lost Texas' starting goalie job to Jussi Rynnas, and was sent down to the Idaho Steelheads of the ECHL to get playing time again. The painful memories of his controversially high draft status were beginning to resurface.
Worst of all, many were beginning to seriously question what Campell's NHL potential was. Whether he could still be a successor to Kari Lehtonen one day. Whether he could be "the guy" in Dallas.
Flash forward one month and suddenly it's a completely different story.
After a dominant seven games in the ECHL the 23 year-old Campbell has pulled a complete 180 and is excelling again in the AHL. He's gone 9-3 since coming back, and has posted a sparkling .927 save percentage in those 12 games.
Perhaps more importantly, Texas has gained enormous ground in the AHL's Western Conference playoff race at the toughest of times, vaulting from a precarious fight for 8th place all the way up to a much more comfortable spot in 5th with time winding down.
In other words, Campbell is definitely "the guy," at least right now, for Texas, and his ability to take charge in this kind of situation certainly bodes very well for his future.
So, what can we attribute to his turnaround? It's hard to say definitively at this point, but a couple things come to mind.
First, Campbell had been fighting through injury and illness to start the season. While this kind of information is hard to excavate, especially so when it comes to minor league teams, it's safe to assume that this combination of injury and illness played at least some part considering they have been shown to regularly debilitate other players.
Secondly, playing time. In a weird stroke of timing Campbell's return from Idaho happened right before Rynnas went down with a serious injury of his own, one that he still hasn't fully recovered from. Campbell's started every game since. Ask any goaltender and they'll tell you how incredibly important regularly playing time is for their on-ice ability. It seems like the opportunity to play multiple games in succession has allowed Campbell to get into a groove that he might not have been able to get into earlier in the season.
To expand upon these thoughts and gain some extra perspective, I reached out to Stephen Meserve, Defending Big D's official Texas Stars correspondent and owner of the website 100 Degree Hockey, to get his take. You can (and should) follow him on Twitter.
DN: First of all, what are your overall thoughts on how Campbell has played since his return from his stint in Idaho?
SM: Jack Campbell has been nothing short of phenomenal. It is extremely lucky that the Stars got Campbell some time in the ECHL when they did. Injury struck Jussi Rynnas in the March 17th game, and Campbell was pressed into service. He's playing more confidently, very directly due to the time he spent in Idaho. A lot of NHL fans don't realize the key part that the ECHL plays in the development process of most goalies. Only a select few are top-flight enough to start at the AHL level and even fewer start at the NHL level. The ECHL is a bigger part of development in net than you know.
DN: Campbell was reported to have been fighting through injury and illness earlier in the season. From your observations, just how much would you say that affected his play?
SM: Something was just off with Campbell this season early. He was playing angles all wrong and getting beat on routine shots that he would have saved easily last year. It became a tired meme watching him let in short-side goals all season. It's unclear what started it, whether it was a case of the yips or what, but it cleared up for the most part now. Further, when some of those things do crop up (like last week's 4 goals against v. Adirondack) Texas has been providing offensive support (7 goals for v. Adirondack).
DN: Between Campbell and Jussi Rynnas, who do you think will be Texas' starter come playoff time?
SM: The health of Jussi Rynnas is very much the question here. I think if Derek Laxdal can get Rynnas at least 2 starts before the playoffs start, he'll have enough data to make a decision. There's a week left in the season and Rynnas hasn't played a game since mid-March. The first round in the AHL is just five games though. Texas doesn't have time to play around with letting Rynnas get back up to speed. If Campbell is rolling, maybe you give him the reins.