Dougie Hamilton’s days in a Bruins uniform are officially numbered.
To be clear, that number is five, the total number of games the rookie defenseman is allowed to play in the NHL before the Bruins must decide whether he remains on the Black-and-Gold varsity or goes back to play junior hockey in St. Catherines, Ontario.
Technically, Hamilton is still interning, pushing pucks and biding time during his new-hire probationary period.
But two games into what has become Dougie’s Wicked Easy ’n’ Awesome NHL Adventure, there appears no reason for anyone to be counting days anymore or wondering if the newbie has the right stuff. Some 72 hours into his life in the bigs, it’s obvious he’s here to stay, the overall fit of his game so seamless it’s as if his short black hockey pants were tailored in Milan and delivered to Causeway Street by a white-gloved Alitalia courier. Hamilton haute couture.
“In my mind . . . right now, he’s a player,’’ said a pleased coach Claude Julien, after Hamilton logged an all-but-perfect 23:27, second only to captain Zdeno Chara, in Monday’s 2-1 shootout victory over the Jets at the Garden. “To me, he’s on our team . . . he’s a player I’m relying on.’’
The Bruins are two games and two victories into the lockout-shortened 48-game season. Hamilton has played both, pairing in Game 1 with Dennis Seidenberg and then working Monday in Chara’s sidecar while Seidenberg was given the day off to tend to a lower-body injury. In both games, both pairings, there was barely an awkward rookie moment. To point them out here would be to be charged with gross picayunism, not only unfair to the kid but also a gross contradiction in terms.
“I’m feeling good,’’ said the ever-polite, ever-smiling 19-year-old following the win over the Jets. “I felt comfortable out there today, playing with [Chara]. It seemed a little different today because we were playing more in our end, and I think that’s good for me, too . . . to help me develop and get better.’’
To be paired with Chara means to roll over the boards every time the other team’s top line rolls over the boards. Better playmakers and shooters usually translates to play being forced more on Boston’s net. In theory, it means tougher minutes for the Boston backline, but the degree of difficulty is mitigated greatly when you’re 6 feet 5 inches (Hamilton) and your partner is the 6-9 Trencin Tower of Power.
If Hamilton-Chara becomes a regular pairing, it’s going to be as tough for opponents to find the Boston net as it is for parents to find a Back Bay hotel room around college graduation time. Precious little room at the Causeway Street Inn with Hamilton and Chara the outkeepers.
“He played a really solid game,’’ noted Chara, who topped the TOI chart for Boston with his perfunctory 28:16. “He seemed comfortable out there — great job by him.’’
Did we expect less? Not really. The Boston front office has been jazzed up over Hamilton from the moment it made him the No. 9 overall pick in the 2011 draft. In the eyes and thoughts of general manager Peter Chiarelli, the big kid has “Franchise Defenseman’’ embroidered in his equipment bag, but Chiarelli is well aware that the fine silk of the embroidery all too often can unravel quickly for the best blue chippers. Typically, breaking in on defense is all the harder, because it’s more demanding than forward and the job is shared by six players as opposed to the dozen who divvy up the work over four forward lines. There is no hiding a struggling defenseman.
Hub hockey fans also have seen blue-chip kids deal with, shall we say, awkward NHL entries.
■ Joe Thornton, the No. 1 pick in ’97, did a lot of window shopping his rookie year, with then coach Pat Burns playing him in only 55 games and Jumbo Joe delivering but three goals and 7 points.
■ Phil Kessel, whom the Bruins chose No. 5 overall in 2006, was a quirky fit from the get-go under the even quirkier Dave Lewis. He went 11-18—29 as a freshman, then averaged 49 points his next two seasons during Julien’s watch before he forced the trade that sent him to Toronto (for what turned out to be Tyler Seguin and Hamilton).
■ Seguin, the No. 2 pick in the 2010 draft, scored 106 points in junior before arriving in Boston and then went 11-11—22 his rookie season. He, too, arrived with abundant skill — possibly more than Thornton and Kessel — but he needed time. Truth is, he remains a work in progress, even with a long-term deal that will start paying him $5.75 million next season.
Hamilton on Monday took a don’t-be-bashful six shots, three of which made it to the net, and he landed three hits (four fewer than Chara). He contributed 2:03 in power-play time (right there with Chara’s 2:17) and Julien even entrusted him enough to log 37 seconds of shorthanded time. Note to St. Catherines: forgettaboutit, Durgin Park has a better chance of leaving Boston than Hamilton right now.
What really made his day, said Hamilton, was seeing how Chara responded after ex-Bruin Blake Wheeler hit the kid a bit overzealously — something Wheeler rarely did during his time in Black and Gold. Chara gave Wheeler an initial pop to let him know the transgression had been logged, then later dumped him with a heavy check near the Winnipeg bench.
“Z laid him out,’’ said Hamilton, his grin expanding. “That was unreal. It put an instant smile on my face.’’
He’s on his way. Two games entered on a five-game scorecard that already has been designated for the document shredder in the Boston front office. Meet the future — No. 27 in your Bruins program.
‘’When we get to that five-game number,’’ mused Julien, “I think if there’s any question marks [in the front office], I’ll certainly hear about it. But right now, there’s no talk from my end of it.’’
No talk. Just action. All of it fun to watch unfold.