ABBOTSFORD, British Columbia — Jack Campbell was caught off-guard by the Edmonton Oilers’ decision to place him on waivers and send him to the American Hockey League, but the 31-year-old is focused on working his way back.
Campbell, who is in the second season of a five-year, $25 million contract ($5 million average annual value) signed as a free agent July 13, 2022, was sent to Bakersfield on Wednesday. He made 16 saves in a 4-1 loss to Abbotsford (Vancouver Canucks) on Thursday, his first AHL appearance since playing two games for Ontario (Los Angeles Kings) in 2018-19.
“Pretty tough, not going to lie,” Campbell said after the game. “I’m pretty hard on myself. I think that’s pretty well-documented around the hockey world. … Tonight was just about getting out there, a lot of emotions, a lot of nerves.”
Less than 24 hours later, Campbell was back on the ice at a small practice rink in the Vancouver suburbs and feeling better about his game, the steps he’s taken on and off the ice the past eight months and his path back to the NHL.
“I feel great today,” Campbell told NHL.com after practice. “Obviously nothing has changed, but my process, just getting back to my routine. My whole career, I’m always very blunt about how I play. But the one thing I’ve matured at is looking at my game, and if I feel I don’t need to beat myself up and I feel good about my game, then that’s great.
“The confidence was high until [the Oilers] made the decision, and now it’s trying to get regain it and believe that what I was doing is good, because it’s a huge shot to anybody’s ego when you get news like this for sure.”
Campbell understands how it might be hard to rectify how he feels with his statistics to start this season with the Oilers, including a 1-4-0 record and .873 save percentage. It’s something he would have struggled with in the past, but after adjusting his stance in the summer with former NHL goalie Manny Legace, Campbell felt good about his training camp, when he had a .971 save percentage in three preseason starts.
Legace played in the 2008 NHL All Star Game but was sent to the AHL by the St. Louis Blues in 2009.
“He calls it keeping my butt off higher rather than sitting down. When I’m sitting back I get small, and it showed in camp in how big I felt and I was just moving way more fluidly,” Campbell said of his work with Legace. “He’s very knowledgeable and he’s been there. It’s cool because A; he helps my game, but also B; he’s like a whole other mental coach where he shares experiences.”
Campbell pointed to some specific scoring chances he’d like to manage differently during his start to the season with Edmonton, but he didn’t join Bakersfield this week feeling like he needs to completely rebuild his game — just some confidence. He has help with that, too, after starting to work with someone new on his mental approach in April.
“I finally found somebody I truly believe in, and he’s changed my life,” Campbell said, pointing to his .961 save percentage in four relief appearances during the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs and his preseason performance. “I started to be free and play how I am capable. Even this season with the numbers I had, but performing at a level where I felt good about my game, which is crazy to think, is amazing for me. Before, no matter how I played, if I had those numbers, I would have beat myself up.”
Campbell has experienced adversity before.
Selected by the Dallas Stars with the No. 11 pick in the 2010 NHL Draft, he only played one NHL game and was still splitting time between the ECHL and AHL in his final season with the Stars before being traded to the Los Angeles Kings in 2016. He rebuilt his game and confidence over two seasons with the Kings’ AHL affiliate and worked his way back up to the NHL. He had a .928 save percentage in 31 games with Los Angeles in 2018-19 before being traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs the following season.
Campbell had a .916 save percentage over three seasons with Toronto before signing in Edmonton, but he finished with an .888 save percentage in his first season with the Oilers, losing the No.1 job to rookie Stuart Skinner by the end of November.
He was admittedly surprised to be sent down to the AHL amid a 2-9-1 start that has Edmonton tied for the fewest points in the NHL (five), but he’s better equipped to deal with it now.
“It’s really hard, but even today, just knowing I have someone that I talk to all the time, it’s nice to have a game plan and have somebody to work with,” Campbell said. “It’s like, ‘Let’s just keep getting better.’ It’s just another challenge.”