January 14, 2011

Steven Kampfer: Anatomy of a successful deadline deal

Steven Kampfer has made an immediate impact, including scoring the game-winning goal Thursday to beat the Flyers. (photo: Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

Hockey teams — not individuals — win championships, so the same can be said of NHL organizations, which must employ layers of scouts and management personnel to build a winning formula instead of relying on one or two people.

In the case of the Boston Bruins and rookie defenseman Steven Kampfer, a team effort between the club’s collegiate scouting department and the organization’s decision-makers hit paydirt.

Kampfer, who was formerly property of the Anaheim Ducks, has made an immediate impact as an offensive defenseman for the Bruins.

In 17 games with the Bruins since being called up, Kampfer has four goals and six points after registering 16 in 20 with Providence of the AHL to start the season. And, most recently, he scored a memorable game-winning goal against the Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday to earn the Bruins a hard-fought win at home.

When Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli announced the deal in early March 2010 as part of a flurry of activity at the NHL’s trade deadline, the University of Michigan standout’s acquisition was a mere footnote, barely registering on the radar of the high-profile transactions made that day. Ten months later, Kampfer has been a revelation to many who didn’t see him coming along so far, so fast.

The 22-year-old’s excellence has shined a light on the work that the B’s scouts and front office did together to bring this classic diamond-in-the-rough into the fold.

Boston’s interest in Kampfer began when John Weisbrod, the team’s director of collegiate scouting, saw the Ann Arbor, Mich., native play in his senior season for the Wolverines. Kampfer was coming off a lost junior season, when two separate incidents resulted in significant injury and put his playing career in jeopardy.

“He impressed me as an undersized defenseman coming off a pretty major injury,” Weisbrod told New England Hockey Journal. “Right out of the gate, he played with swagger and conviction. He was a really competitive kid; it was clear to me that he didn’t like losing battles, and I was drawn to the kind of conviction he had in helping his team win.”

Weisbrod, a former Harvard hockey star and Minnesota draft pick who won an NCAA championship with the Crimson in 1989, recalled that as he sat down at his computer to file his first report on Kampfer, that based on that one viewing, he believed that Kampfer had an NHL future.

 “I thought he was a great skater,” Weisbrod said. “Even with the lack of size, he’s got that ability to go in any direction and get up and down the ice with the kind of speed and agility that is essential for the NHL.”

Weisbrod and Ryan Nadeau, the team’s director of hockey administration who also scouts NCAA prospects for the Bruins, both evaluated Kampfer further and came to the same conclusion that he was a player worth identifying to management.

The next step was recommending that Bruins assistant GM Jim Benning watch Kampfer to get another set of eyes on the potential target. Benning — the former director of amateur scouting for the Buffalo Sabres before coming to Boston — brings a wealth of knowledge to the team-building process and is an experienced, respected talent evaluator.  According to Weisbrod, Benning went and saw Kampfer when the Wolverines were out East last winter, concurring with the staff’s initial assessment of his potential.

With Benning on board, a conference call was then held with Chiarelli to make the case that Kampfer — as well as Matt Bartkowski of Ohio State and a Florida Panthers prospect — were worth pursuing via the trade route. Acting on the advice of his scouts, Chiarelli contacted Anaheim and agreed to give up a conditional fourth-round selection for Kampfer. Bartkowski was acquired in a separate deadline trade involving Dennis Seidenberg, Byron Bitz, Craig Wellar and Tampa Bay’s second-round choice acquired a year earlier in the deal that also brought Mark Recchi to Boston.

“I thought it (a fourth-round pick) was a fair price to pay for a player with NHL potential,” Weisbrod said. “It’s a testament to the kid (Kampfer); I don’t know that any of us thought he would make the transition so quickly to the NHL and make the kind of contribution he has so soon.”

Weisbrod also revealed another important aspect of Boston’s collective approach to drafting and developing its players in discussing Kampfer’s first impressions with the organization.

When his senior season ended and he was eligible to sign and turn pro, Chiarelli and assistant GM and director of hockey operations Don Sweeney asked if Kampfer could help out in Providence at the end of the 2009-10 season.

Although the team was out of the playoff mix by then, the opportunity to get Kampfer his first pro experience was seized, and he was viewed as the most impactful of several Boston prospects who saw action in the final six games, including first-round pick Joe Colborne and second-rounder Max Sauve.

“I wasn’t aware that they had gotten (Kampfer) to Providence, but I found out about it in his first game there,” Weisbrod recalled. “Donnie texted me after the first period saying that after seeing Kampfer in action that he looked like he was going to be an NHL player.

“That really encouraged me because Don Sweeney played a long time in the NHL as an accomplished, undersized defenseman, so he understands what it takes to make it. The fact that he recognized some of those traits in Kampfer was a real vote of confidence.”

Kampfer’s success story wouldn’t be possible without his own performance and execution that has given Bruins head coach Claude Julien and his staff the wherewithal to pair him with Zdeno Chara for a regular shift as well as see a lot of time on the power play and special teams. 

However, it is also a validation of the careful, meticulous work that Chiarelli did early in his Boston tenure in surrounding himself with the kinds of experienced, capable hockey people.

“I give a lot of credit to Peter for listening to, trusting his scouts and acting on the advice and input,” Weisbrod said. “I have colleagues in other organizations who have told me that there are players they’ve identified and made cases for and that their GMs either disagreed with them or disregarded their input. That hasn’t been the case here, and I’m just happy that we were all able to work together to bring in Steve (Kampfer) and Matt (Bartkowski).”

Getting the players into the fold was only part of the process, but the opportunities they took advantage of over the summer in their first development camp with the team, run by Sweeney and Providence head coach Rob Murray, set the stage for both defensemen to open eyes at training camp and during the exhibition season, when they were among the final cuts.

“You have to give Donnie and Rob Murray a lot of credit for the work they do in developing the players,” Weisbrod said. “You’re seeing it pay off with these two kids and the others who are coming up through the system.”

Kampfer’s early success is not only a direct reflection of the team dynamic Chiarelli has employed in Boston but also serves as a reminder of the importance of developing and maintaining the kind of organizational infrastructure that allowed it to happen.

In this case, it began with one scout taking in one game and becoming a believer a Kampfer.

Kirk Luedeke can be reached at kluedeke@hockeyjournal.com