Oilers’ Campbell finds confidence in AHL as he waits for next opportunity

BAKERSFIELD, CALIFORNIA — Not only does Jack Campbell find himself in the minors, but he is likely to spend the rest of the season here in this gritty agri-oil town, about a three-hour drive north of Los Angeles.

But here’s the thing. He’s happier than hell.

“It’s clicked,” Campbell says, a big grin on his face.

“What’s clicked?” we ask him.

“You watch the games, you watch me the last couple of weeks… It’s not a skill thing. It’s the six inches between my ears,” he said. “It’s clicked. It’s not perfect, but it’s clicked.”

Ah, that precious, confusing parcel of real estate behind Campbell’s eyes. It’s always been the thing.

He’s talked about it openly — perhaps too openly — over the course of a career that began as a first-round pick, then went in every direction except the one you would expect it to.

He’s 32 now, buried in the minors and 14 years removed from that day he pulled on that Dallas Stars jersey as the 11th overall pick in Taylor Hall’s 2010 draft. Campbell went 112 selections ahead of future teammate and close friend Zach Hyman.

The journey has been one he could never have imagined. “Oooh,” he says. “Absolutely not.”

Campbell cleared waivers and took his assignment to Bakersfield on Nov. 8, the Oilers reeling with a 2-8-1 record and his game in a shambles. He’d surrendered five Nashville goals a few days and saw his saves percentage plunge to .873.

So Campbell packed his sticks, his gear and his troubles into an Uber bound for EIA, and met the Condors in Abbotsford to begin playing his way out of his funk.

It did not go well.

“In hindsight, I made a mistake when I sent him down. I probably should not have had him play right off the bat,” said Oilers general manager Ken Holland. “I sent him down on a Tuesday, and Thursday night he’s playing in Abbotsford. I told him, ‘Go play eight of 10,’ and it just went from bad to worse. It spiraled out of control.”

We’re not going to dwell on those first few weeks, where folks began to wonder whether the fight had finally become too much for Campbell. Sure, he’s making $5 million a year — for three seasons after this one — but this could crush a guy.

Today, Campbell’s last start was a 36-save, 2-1 win at Austin. He has a .935 saves percentage in his last seven starts.

“You think you’ve been doing it for so long, that it should just click. I’ve been (playing goal) since such a young age,” Campbell said. “For me, there are things that just started clicking that I’m so excited about, in the last four weeks. It’s like, ‘There it is!’

“It’s fun, man. You have to keep growing.”

He’s 32, he’s buried in Bako, and Campbell has a smile that’s a mile wide.

“It’s fun, man.”

We asked Stuart Skinner in Las Vegas for a few thoughts on Campbell. A goalie always knows a goalie better than anyone else ever could, and boy or boy, does Skinner know this cat.

“The way that he’s fought, the way that he’s been battling back,” Skinner began. “Every single morning in Bakersfield I’m sure he’s got a smile on his face, just like he did up here. So that shows you a lot about a person’s character.”

Amazing, hey?

“It’s very admirable,” Skinner said. “I look up to people like that; I look up to stories like that. I think that shows you how strong a person really is.”

We asked Campbell what, exactly, these life changes consist of. He said he’d rather not go into detail, but that he’s been working with a life coach since last April, who has “changed so much of the way I think.”

“It’s just been a huge transformation of growth for me as a human being for me off the ice that’s led to my poise in the net. It’s just a beautiful thing.”

He’s getting married this summer, and if a guy was to make a guess, he’d suspect that the future Mrs. Ashley Campbell has a lot to do with reclaiming a viable goaltender — and person — from the shell of a guy that Holland farmed out three months ago.

“Through my success in Toronto, to my tough times — so far — in Edmonton, she’s been a part of it all,” Campbell said. “She doesn’t let me sit around and feel sorry (for himself). She helps me dig in and learn from it. She’s just everything I could ever ask for in a partner.”

Here’s the brutal part of professional sports: Campbell could post a saves percentage of .999 down here and (barring injury) the call won’t come from Edmonton until playoff time. Between the stability that backup Calvin Pickard has brought to the Oilers tandem, and the fact that Holland won’t risk losing Pickard on waivers to get him back to Bako, Campbell’s likely here for the long haul this season.

“I watched Jack live on Saturday (in Austin) and he played very solid. Good rebound control, made big saves, under control… He looked at the top of his game,” Holland said. “We’re in a good place: Ollie Rodrigue is playing great too, so we’ve got four goalies who are on top of their game.

“That’s a good problem. Not a bad problem.”

Problems? There are no problems here for the guy they call “Soup.”

He’s convinced that he’s finally got the deed for that real estate we talked about — the precious six inches — and that he’s finally got this battle won.

Because it’s never been about slow feet or a lazy glove hand with Campbell. It’s always been cerebral.

So we asked him, in conclusion, to tell us how the journey ends? How would he write the end to a script that he’s seldom controlled, through four NHL organizations and not nearly as many games (176) as the Stars thought he’d give them at that 2010 draft table?

“Now that I’ve made these amazing changes to myself off the ice, and it’s shifted to on the ice, man…,” he said. “I would just love another opportunity in the NHL.

“What I’ve done in my NHL career, the success I’ve had, I don’t want to put any pressure on it, but what I’ve learned being here — through this — will really be something special if I get another chance.

“Which I would be grateful for.”

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