Haggerty: Hamilton on path to improvement

Haggerty: Hamilton on path to improvement
July 16, 2013, 1:00 am
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WILMINGTON – While its clear 20-year-old Dougie Hamilton has graduated from the development camp scene as a card-carrying member of the Boston Bruins, the learning curve is still very much ongoing for the talented, young defenseman.

Hamilton will be working out and getting ready, and he’s doing so without the distraction of any invites to summer camps.

“It’s a weird summer with no development camp, and no World Junior camp,” said Hamilton. “There are no camps at all.”

That’s not such a bad thing for a youngster that kept a dizzying schedule of hockey during the 2012-13 season.

Hamilton is now back home in Toronto working out, training and prepping for his first full 82-game season at the pro level, and perhaps still processing an incredibly heady set of experiences over the last calendar year. The 2011 first round pick played hockey continuously from August through June for Niagara and Boston as well as Team Canada in the Canada/Russia series and World Junior championships.

The 11 straight months of competitive hockey clearly took a little bit out of the rookie, who started the NHL season on fire while showing the passing vision, shot and instincts that will make him a highly effective offensive player. That led to Hamilton sitting in the press box watching for the first time in his career down the stretch of the regular season, and the majority of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Hamilton did manage three assists in seven playoff games for the Bruins along with a zero plus/minus rating, and had some excellent games against Toronto and the Rangers. He was also victimized for the overtime game-winner against the Rangers in Game 4 when he couldn’t hold Chris Kreider off from scoring. It wasn’t really Hamilton’s fault, but it was clear that the teenager was taking the loss to heart in the postgame dressing room at Madison Square Garden.

That proved to be just one teaching moment of many during his event-filled rookie season with the Black and Gold. Winning one-on-one battles in front of the net and in the corners remains Hamilton’s biggest challenge in the defensive zone, but much of that will be remedied in time as the big-bodied defensemen fills out and gains some natural “man strength.”

For a player that’s always been among the biggest, the smartest and the best on the ice, Hamilton had his own adjustments to go through once he became a healthy scratch in that second round of the playoffs.

“It was definitely a long year, but it was also a lot of fun. It makes you excited for the years to come,” said Hamilton. “I was happy to be able to play some playoff games, and get that experience that some guys never get. It was valuable experience for all of the [young defensemen], and really bodes well for the future.

“I think you’re able to see even more when you’re not playing. You could see how much we mean to Boston, and to the fans. It was a really fun journey.

There is very clearly an upside to sitting and watching the playoffs for a young player like Hamilton.

The experience should make him hungry while also spell out some clear improvements expected in his game. Hamilton showed all kinds of offensive promise at the defenseman position and ranked among the top NHL rookie D-men with five goals, 16 points and a plus-4 rating, and averaged a healthy 17:04 of ice time in his 42 games.

There is plenty there for the 6-foot-5 defenseman to build on, and that is what the Bruins expect for Hamilton moving forward as he gains physical strength and overall experience at a difficult position.

“It’s going to be a good two months for me to able to get back home, reflect on everything and get my mind back. I’m already looking forward to next year. I want to do more and be a better player,” said Hamilton. “It was tough to be a healthy scratch, and to go through that. Playing a game here or there is something I’d never experienced before in my career. I think it will be a good learning experience.”

It should be an interesting scenario during NHL training camp in September with so many young and talented defensemen in the ranks.

It appears likely that Johnny Boychuk, Dennis Seidenberg and Adam McQuaid will all be on the right side at the start of NHL camp, and that grizzled trio should have the inside track on the three starting gigs. With Zdeno Chara, Matt Bartkowski and Torey Krug also looking like the favorites for the three left defensemen spots, there’s a chance Hamilton could be the odd man out at the start of the regular season -- just as he was during the playoffs.

If that were to be the case, there’s a very realistic scenario that the 20-year-old Hamilton could start the season at the AHL level. In many ways it might be the best thing for an up-and-coming defenseman still learning his trade at the professional level. In Providence, Hamilton would play 20 plus minutes per night, and get all of the PP and PK ice time he can handle while logging ice time in every possible situation.

Given the work that Providence Bruins coaches Bruce Cassidy and Kevin Dean did with Krug and Bartkowski in their D-man development, it could be the exact best place for a guy like Hamilton while still learning his craft. Clearly injuries and unforeseen circumstances could change things quickly for Boston, and all of this is nothing more than reading the hockey tea leaves.

Plans could change very quickly if Hamilton plays like an impact defenseman during training camp, and forces a difficult decision for a Bruins team that will be playing close to the salary cap ceiling.

The young D-man fully expects he’ll see steady improvement in Boston just as he exhibited during his time in the OHL with the Niagara IceDogs. One great thing about Hamilton: nobody questions whether he’ll put in the time and effort needed, and nobody doubts that the 20-year-old has a burning desire to be the best.

“Just looking back at the OHL and my first year, everything was new and a little bit different. As I got older and stronger as compared to the guys my age and the younger guys, it became easier for me and I got more comfortable,” said Hamilton. “That’s what I’m hoping to do here. I don’t know whether it will take longer, or whatever . . . but that’s what the plan is.”

The plan for Hamilton might have a bump or two on the road along the way to full development as a player, but his rookie season showed all the promise the Bruins could have hoped for. He won’t be a finished product next year at 20 years old, but Hamilton is completely ready, willing and able to learn what it will take to eventually get there.