Pretty slick on blue line
Bruins’ Hamilton impressive so far
PROVIDENCE - It was not a drill that was kind to defensemen.
On Monday at TD Garden, each blue liner squared off against a puck-carrying forward. As the forward sprinted the full length of the ice, the defenseman had to skate backward, keep the puck carrier in sight, and defend the scoring chance.
Zdeno Chara struggled to get his legs pumping. Andrew Ference had several forwards blow his doors off by the time he reached the defensive zone.
Dougie Hamilton had no such problems.
One of the most important reasons the Bruins selected the 6-foot-4-inch, 194-pound Hamilton with the ninth overall pick is his silky skating. On each repetition of Monday’s drill, Hamilton revved up to speed with several short bursts, then transitioned into a longer, smoother stride. By the time both players hit the defensive zone, Hamilton was positioned perfectly to swat away pucks with his stick or stand up to the shooter with squared-up shoulders.
“Certainly a strong backward skater,’’ noted coach Claude Julien. “He has a good stick. I think he’s learning a lot about our game at the pro level.
“He’s one of those guys that we talk about who come back to camp and improve every year. He’s one of those players that will certainly do that.’’
The 18-year-old Hamilton will almost certainly return to juniors sometime during training camp. The goal is for him to make an early impact with Niagara, then earn a roster spot for Canada’s World Junior Championship entry. Hamilton could very well play for Niagara again in 2012-13.
There is no rush for Hamilton to become a pro until he is closer to a finished physical product. He could be 15 pounds and perhaps even a half-inch away.
The current template, however, projects that when Hamilton starts drawing a pro salary, he will be an impact NHLer for good.
During general manager Peter Chiarelli’s watch, the Bruins had never drafted a high-end defenseman. Their previous draft plucks include Tommy Cross and Ryan Button - players who, if they make the NHL, look to be mid-tier blue liners. Steven Kampfer, Matt Bartkowski, David Warsofsky, and Colby Cohen, the young former collegians the Bruins acquired via trades, are also depth defensemen.
Hamilton’s physical tools, skill set, and hockey sense could make him a top-pairing two-way defenseman. It all starts with how well he moves.
“I think I’ve always been a pretty good skater and pretty athletic,’’ Hamilton said. “As I’ve grown, it’s kind of been tough getting used to the long legs. But I think it’s helped a lot. My stride’s longer with my long legs. I’m just working on the quick feet. I think my skating’s one of the strongest parts of my game.’’
Because of how fluidly Hamilton skates, he can be in optimal position in all areas of the ice - supporting the attack and walking the blue line in the offensive zone, keeping a tight gap in the neutral zone, remaining square to attackers near his net.
If Hamilton keeps his skating smooth as he adds muscle, he can become stronger on the puck and against opponents. The ultimate projection is future Hall of Famer Rob Blake - a tall, thick, right-shot defenseman who can contribute offensively and punish players in the other end.
“I want to get bigger and stronger and be able to push guys around,’’ Hamilton said. “As my [Ontario Hockey League] career has moved on, I’ve kind of developed into that and been able to move guys around and knock guys over.
“It feels like it’s starting all over again. The guys are 200, 220 pounds. I’m 195, so I’m going to work on that.’’
In juniors, the sundae-topper to Hamilton’s game has been his offensive acumen. In 67 games last year, Hamilton had 12 goals and 46 assists. He quarterbacked the No. 1 power-play unit. From the defensive end, Hamilton completed crisp seam passes to his forwards’ sticks to kick off the attack.
From what he’s seen so far, Julien compared Hamilton’s skills with the puck to those of Nicklas Lidstrom, one of the NHL’s best defensemen ever.
“He has a bit of the Lidstrom quality of making easy passes, seeing the ice well, and making the game look really easy,’’ Julien said. “He’s got some good qualities there that I think will bode well for him in the future.’’
There was no coincidence that in the opening days of camp, Hamilton was paired with Chara, another big man with a two-way touch. Chara, said Hamilton, has been serving as an on-ice coach. While skating alongside Chara, Hamilton hasn’t looked out of place.
“I think I’m doing pretty good,’’ Hamilton said. “I don’t really know, but I feel good out there. I think I’m playing good. It’s nice to feel that. It’s nice to know that your goal is close. Obviously there’s a long way to go.’’
Yesterday morning, after going through off-ice workouts at TD Garden, the Bruins watched video distributed by the NHL detailing the 2011-12 rules regarding head shots and boarding. This season, a hit where the head is targeted as the principal point of contact is subject to penalty. A two-minute boarding penalty will be handed to any player who checks or pushes a defenseless opponent violently or dangerously into the boards. “It just comes back to trying to respect your opponent,’’ said Adam McQuaid. “If a guy’s in a vulnerable position, you try not to bury him.’’ The NHL reminded teams that the boarding call will be up to the referee’s discretion. “I like the direction they’re taking,’’ Julien said. “Of course, there’s nothing in this game that’s ever going to be black and white. A lot of it is discretion. I think that’s where everybody has to take some responsibility.’’ . . . Chara, Patrice Bergeron, Nathan Horton, Chris Kelly, and Shawn Thornton didn’t participate in last night’s Black and White scrimmage at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence. Julien said Chara is fine after suffering a bruise on the inside of his left leg on Monday. Team Black beat Team White, 4-1. Alexander Khokhlachev scored two goals, while Lane MacDermid and Daniel Paille added a goal each. Ryan Spooner scored White’s only goal . . . Joe Corvo suffered a lower-body injury in the first period and is day-to-day.