Hamilton is close to breaking the ice
WILMINGTON — In 2011-12, Dougie Hamilton submitted what Bruins assistant general manager Don Sweeney termed a “dominant” season in juniors.
Hamilton, the Bruins’ first-round pick in 2011, is eligible to return to his Ontario Hockey League team in Niagara next season. But he seems to have wrung all he can out of junior hockey. The 19-year-old is not eligible to play for Providence next season.
That leaves just one possible destination.
“That’s my goal, obviously — to make the Bruins,” Hamilton said after Thursday’s development camp session at Ristuccia Arena. “I want to get better every day and try to give myself the best opportunity to do that.”
In June of 2010, with the No. 2 pick from the Phil Kessel trade with Toronto, the Bruins selected Tyler Seguin. Given his skill set, when Seguin’s career is over, he could be one of the brightest homegrown forwards in team history.
The Bruins hope Hamilton can be Seguin’s blue-line equal. The last defenseman the Bruins drafted and projected as highly as Hamilton may be Glen Wesley, the third overall selection in 1987. In Hamilton, the Bruins believe they have a two-way talent with a sprinkle of everything: shutdown presence, puck mover, power-play quarterback, penalty-killing regular.
In 50 games last season, Hamilton racked up 17 goals and 55 assists. He was named OHL Defenseman of the Year.
“Doug had a really, really good year,” Sweeney said. “He was a dominant player at that level. He went back and worked on a lot of things we’d addressed with him in terms of rounding out his game and decision-making.
“He’s such an athletic player to begin with — that size and how he moves. He’s ready for the next step, the next challenge. Hopefully he continues to progress, because that position is not the easiest thing in the world to learn at the NHL level.
“It’s up to him. Nobody gives him anything. But hopefully he can come in and take the next step.”
The complexity of the position requires caution. The Bruins have used high picks on defensemen who didn’t fulfill expectations. Matt Lashoff, Lars Jonsson, and Johnathan Aitken, all first-rounders, are proof that great potential doesn’t always translate to results.
Injuries can strike. The game can change. Confidence, that fleeting intangible, can disappear.
But given how Hamilton has progressed in the year since he became Bruins property, his development curve should continue when he arrives in the NHL.
“I think I’m a lot farther ahead,” said Hamilton when asked to compare his game now versus last year’s camp. “I’m stronger now. I’ve put on some weight. I had a pretty good season last year and a lot of experience coming from that. I’m more confident coming in this year.”
The 6-foot-5-inch, 193-pound Hamilton — he hopes to be 205 pounds when he returns for training camp in the fall — has already drawn comparisons to Jay Bouwmeester, Calgary’s smooth-moving ice-time eater. The right-shot Hamilton skates with ease and elegance that belie his hulking stature.
But when Hamilton fills out his frame and gains NHL mileage, the Bruins project him to be like Rob Blake. The former Kings captain punished opponents with his physique and no-nonsense approach.
Intimidation has worked for Zdeno Chara. It is an element that would also benefit Hamilton, who spent his time last fall tracking Chara’s on- and off-ice habits.
“They paired me with him right off the start,” said Hamilton. “Listening to him and having him in my ear talking to me, I definitely took a lot from that. I’m looking forward to going back to main camp with him.”
At last year’s camp, Hamilton got his first look at life as a pro hockey player. He used the time to learn the basics: good skating technique, correct training habits, proper nutrition.
This year, the Bruins are seeing how much more Hamilton can absorb. They’re feeding him nuggets such as systems play to help him adjust to the NHL game. During Thursday’s on-ice session, Hamilton was paired with Torey Krug, the former Michigan State defenseman who appeared in two games for the Bruins last season.
Hamilton doesn’t project to displace any of the team’s current defensemen. Chara, Dennis Seidenberg, Andrew Ference, Johnny Boychuk, and Adam McQuaid will handle the bulk of the blue-line duty when 2012-13 opens.
But Hamilton’s progress makes it easier for the Bruins to say goodbye to Joe Corvo, Greg Zanon, and Mike Mottau, who will reach unrestricted free agency Sunday.
Hamilton is wearing No. 59 during camp. But No. 27, Hamilton’s preferred number, is available. The last Bruins to wear No. 27 was Steve Begin in 2009-10.
“I just want Doug to feel good when he walks in the door, as I want all these kids,” Sweeney said. “If they’re coming to compete for a job, they feel really, really good about where they’re at, both as people and as professionals.
“It’s hard to push somebody out of the way to grab a job. I don’t think NHL guys want to give it up. You get old like me, they kick you out the door, that’s fine. But up until that point, most of the guys want to keep it.
“A young player has to realize that it’s a steep hill to climb. Doug’s no different. I know he has a lot of acclaim. He’s going to be just fine. But he’s got to go push somebody out of the way. The more he can process how we’re going to defend in our systems and allow his skill and abilities to take over, we’re all excited as to what can come of that.”