There were many that assumed young Dougie Hamilton might be best served starting the season in the AHL, gathering necessary experience by playing big minutes in all situations before returning to Boston a more developed franchise-defenseman-in-the-making.
Instead Hamilton started the year in the NHL with the Bruins, and he’s been developing on the fly for a hockey club that is pretty clearly in need of the young legs along their blue line. Hamilton has three goals and six points in 14 games along with a plus-6, and is averaging just a shade below 20 minutes of ice time per game while getting paired with either Dennis Seidenberg or Zdeno Chara most nights.
Clearly, the 20-year-old has been an asset on Boston’s second power-play unit. His big shot from the point and ability to dexterously walk the blue line while keeping pucks alive in the offensive zone has led to a bevy of scoring chances -- and more than a few PP goals. It was Hamilton’s ability to rescue a puck at the blue line that aided in setting up Patrice Bergeron’s game-winning power-play strike against the Maple Leafs last weekend.
“He seems to make the right plays a lot out there, and he’s persisting well, he’s playing the body well, and playing smart,” said Tuukka Rask, who gets a lot of up close and personal looks at Hamilton’s work in the defensive zone. “I think the less I see him out there, the better he seems to play.
“I never really can memorize anything he does out there defensively so I think that’s a good sign that he’s playing a rock solid defensive game, which in this league, and on our team, is really important.”
The big development has been in Hamilton’s work in the defensive zone. It was apparent in training camp that the young defenseman had worked up some needed snarl battling in front of the net, and in the always-treacherous corners. Through the year, the young defenseman has also shown a better grasp on picking his spots to attack offensively while limiting the moments he leaves the Bruins vulnerable to rushes down the other end of the ice.
Where does Hamilton feel like he’s made the biggest leap in his second NHL season?
“I think everything, I think very [much] defensively, and around the net and in the corners with stuff, I think I got stronger,” said Hamilton, who has points in three of his last four games. “I think just [playing with] more confidence, more comfortable with the guys.
“Having been here for half a season last year, I think it just makes it easier being comfortable. [The competition for a lineup spot] is tough, but it makes you better. I think you’ve really got to stay on your toes knowing that somebody’s there, itching to play. I think for all of us it’s just about playing hard so that we can keep our spots in the lineup. That’s all you have to do.”
Hamilton is still caught on occasion when the covering forward high in the defensive zone doesn’t rotate back to a defenseman spot to cover for him, or when he exhibits the risky D-man behavior with the other team’s top forwards on the ice.
He made a critical mistake getting caught up the ice against the New York Islanders while paired with Zdeno Chara, and left his partner all alone for a Kyle Okposo and Thomas Vanek 2-on-1 that ended up in the back of Boston’s net.
Those wide-ranging responsibilities are part of what makes defensemen the most difficult position to truly master at the NHL level, but the Bruins are encouraged by what they’ve seen out of Hamilton for much of this season. Certainly he seems to be getting better and better as time rolls on, and the rebuilt confidence has returned his ability to impact games at the offensive end.
Now Hamilton will see even more responsibility with Adam McQuaid out of the lineup. He’ll be looking at more ice time, an expanded role on the penalty kill, and most likely a new defensive partner with the Bruins coaching staff looking to pair each one of their young defensemen with a veteran.
Hamilton had a slow start to training camp, but his level of play has been on a steady incline since that early part of the season.
“His first part of the year he was in and out [of the lineup] a little bit. But he’s played really solid for us and offensively continues to make good decisions, good plays, and stays very aggressive,” said Claude Julien. “Defensively he’s becoming better and better all the time. He’s a young player -- he’s a 20-year-old -- but with experience, he’s starting to flourish and he just has to keep going that way.”
There is little doubt the Bruins need him as the anchoring force quarterbacking their second power-play unit, and they’re not nearly as effective without him. It’s no coincidence that the Bruins went 0-for-9 on the power play in the two games last month during which Hamilton was a healthy scratch.
That makes it painfully clear that the Bruins' current middle-of-the-road offense needs all the help it can get, and can’t function properly without Hamilton calling the shots on the second PP unit.
Both Hamilton and the Bruins are far, far removed from openly wondering whether he might be better served with some remedial work in the AHL to start the season, and instead both Hamilton and teammate Torey Krug are riding the highs and lows as ridiculously talented young blueliners learning their craft on hockey’s biggest stage.