Hamill working on opening up role in Boston

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Hamill working on opening up role in Boston

BOSTON -- Its easy to forget that Zach Hamill was once considered one of the best young talents in the available draft pool.

Hamill has never amassed more than 14 goals or 44 points in a minor-league season after being the eighth overall pick in the 2007 NHL draft, and hes been viewed as something of a disappointment in most circles. That notion takes on greater meaning when its mentioned that Logan Couture was selected by the San Jose Sharks immediately after him in the actual draft, and Hamill was ranked just ahead of St. Louis Blues forward David Perron on the NHL Central Scouting list that season.

One could also look at the Bruins tapping Boston College defenseman Tommy Cross in Round Two eight picks ahead of Montreal selecting defenseman P.K. Subban. Theres also the matter of Devin Setoguchi and Peter Mueller standing as the two players selected with the No. 8 overall pick in the two drafts leading up to Hamills selection.

But thats all water under the bridge now, and the 23-year-old is far beyond draft pedigree and living up to artificial expectations.

Hamill is looking for an NHL job, and hes playing like it each time he comes up for a cup of coffee with the Bruins. That was the case again on Tuesday night when he set up Bostons first goal in a 3-0 shutout win over Los Angeles at TD Garden, and sparked the team to a solid effort against a Kings team that looks like theyre still searching for their motivation.

Hamill has really begun to find a niche as a jack-of-all-trades forward that can play at center or on the wing, and can slide up and down the line charts. It wasnt the perfect first round existence where he took the world by storm playing his original position -- but it seems like Hamill is finding a way to break through by doing whatever is necessary to get there.

Its good. I think for my sake it feels good to show them that Im versatile, and wherever they need me, I can play any position, said Hamill, who now has three assists in seven career NHL games. So it shows the versatility of my game, and Im happy to show them.

When you come up here you want to be ready, and you want to make the most of your opportunities. Ive been looking forward ever since day one. Ive just been going forward and doing my thing and getting better every day and waiting for my opportunity. Ill make the most of it.

The goal was one only a pure playmaker would be able to envision and then execute with a perfect crossing pass to the player cutting to the net, and thats what Hamill did while working the three-man cycle with Rich Peverley and Benoit Pouliot in an improvised line combination. Hamills forecheck kept the puck in the offensive zone, and then it was the passing pivot that flipped the puck to Peverley cutting toward the backdoor. Hamill had his second assist in three games with the Bs this season, and Peverley had his first goal in the last 14 games with Boston.

That set the Bs off and running in the victory, and unearthed more evidence that perhaps Hamill is turning himself into an NHL asset after all.

When we say Hamill is a first round pick, hes a pretty skilled player and he showed that right off the bat. That was a play that an NHL player makes, said Claude Julien. He had a good heads-up pass and right on the tape, and it was an easy tap in for Rich Peverley. Hes done that a few times for us. Hes been a good player.

I was happy with him the first time he came up and certainly happy with him tonight. He had to play a position at center where hes played most of his career. I thought he adjusted well. He was really good in our own end as far as supporting and battling. I was really pleased with his game.

Hamill again popped up with another play in the second period on another cycle with the Bs fourth line. Hamill had the puck in the slot area with heavy traffic in front of the net, but the center opted to move the puck toward Shawn Thornton closer to the net rather than shoot it himself.

The dish might have been some of that pass first instinct of a natural born center, but it ended up drawing a Slava Voynov tripping call in the first period that led to a Bs power play.

We were cycling pretty well from the first shift on. I was just trying to get a quick start, and then just work from there, said Hamill. The last time I came up here I was called a lot to play third left wing, and thats what I did. This time Im called upon to play fourth line center, and thats what I did. Whenever they need me, or wherever they need me, Im willing to go to.

Hamill is up on an emergency basis filling in for Gregory Campbell while he recovers from a fractured foot, but one has to wonder if it could ever be on a permanent basis given his offensive abilities. The pivot keeps making things happen when he finds his way into NHL games, and it gets him one step closer to his NHL dream.

Some in Hamills situation -- being held back organizationally in some ways by a stacked big league roster -- would be looking to impress opposing scouts and perhaps spark some kind of trade talks with their upgraded play. But Hamill still sounds determined to eventually find a way into the Bs fold whether its filling in this season, or finding a permanent home on the wing next season after resigning as a restricted free agent.

When I come up here I come up with the idea that I want to play for the Boston Bruins. Theyre Stanley Cup champions. You just look around here and there are guys that just know how to win. The guys in the room have that winning attitude and I think with my game I could be a good contributor to this team, said Hamill. Theres nothing I can do, but play whatever role they give me as best as I can.

If Hamill continues to produce in Campbells absence and flashes that same valuable versatility with each approaching game, the former 2007 first round pick might just start living up to that heightened reputation he began this journey with.

Haggerty: Mark it down -- the Bruins WILL make the playoffs

Haggerty: Mark it down -- the Bruins WILL make the playoffs

The Bruins are going to snap their two-year drought and get into the Stanley Cup playoffs this spring. 

Sure, it’s going to be a tight race. And it'll come down to the last few games, befitting a team that's lived on the Atlantic Division bubble over the last three years. But in the seven games under interim coach Bruce Cassidy, the Bruins have shown they have the goods to get into the postseason. There's every reason to believe they’ll sustain their winning ways over the final two months of the regular season. 

There's a long way to go, of course, but a third-place (or higher) finish would ensure the B's a berth in the Atlantic Division playoff bracket, and they could conceivably advance a round or two based solely on the poor quality of clubs in their division. With 20 games to play, the Bruins are now third in the division and have a one-point cushion (70-69) over fourth-place Toronto, though the Leafs have a game in hand. If Toronto passes them, they currently have a two-point lead over the Islanders (70-68) for the eighth and final spot in the conference playoffs, though the Isles also have a game in hand. 

And that's not to say Boston couldn't climb higher. The B's are only four points behind the first-place but spinning-their-wheels Canadiens (20-20-7 since their 13-1-1 start), and they're even with the Habs in games played. They trail second-place Ottawa by two points, but the Senators have two games in hand.

All that, however, is another story for another day (even if it is a reason for Boston adding, rather than subtracting, at Wednesday's NHL trade deadline),

So how can we so stridently state that the Bruins are going to make the playoffs, and assure that this seven-game run isn’t just a flash in the pan?

Clearly they're playing with more urgency, higher compete levels, and a consistent focus that wasn’t there in the first 55 games under Claude Julien. They've now scored first-period goals in nine straight games and scored first in each of the four games on the highly successful Western swing through San Jose, Los Angeles, Anaheim and Dallas over the last week. 

To put that in perspective, the B's had gone 1-8 in California over the previous three seasons, when those late-in-the-year road trips spelled the beginning of the end for Boston.

But even more convincing is a simple look at the numbers, the production and the reasons behind the surge forward. 

The Bruins have long needed their two franchise centers operating at a high level at both ends of the ice, and consistently playing the 200-foot game that can cause major problems against teams not blessed with frontline talent in the middle. That wasn’t the case under Julien this year, but things have changed. 

David Krejci has three goals and eight points along with an even plus/minus rating in seven games under Cassidy. Patrice Bergeron posted three goals and nine points along with a plus-7 over that same span of games. With those two big-money, big-ceiling players operating at their highest levels, the rest of the team has shown its true potential . . . and the talent level is considerably higher than many thought.

It wasn’t long ago that many Bruins fans, and some major Julien apologists in the media, would have had you believe that Claude was keeping together a substandard NHL roster with a MacGyver-like combination of duct tape, chewing gum and an offensive system that only a dump-and-chase, trappist wonk could love. Now we’re seeing there's offensive talent on a group that’s been given the green light to create and produce. 

To wit, the Bruins' third line is now winning games for them after serving as a liability for the first half of the season. Ryan Spooner, Jimmy Hayes and Frank Vatrano have combined for 6 goals, 15 points and a plus-11 in the seven games under Cassidy after never getting a chance to work together under Julien because they weren’t in his defensive circle of trust.

There's also the elevated level of production -- across the board -- from Boston’s defensemen. Not to mention Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak continuing to produce offense at elite levels. Marchand just set a career-high with his 64th point on Sunday afternoon, and still has another 20 games left in attempting to become the B's first point-per-game player since Marc Savard (88 points in 82 games in  2008-09).

All of it amounts to a Bruins offense that’s now choosing quality shots over quantity: Boston is scoring 1.5 more goals per game under Cassidy while averaging a significant 4.5 fewer shots per game. The Bruins have finally ditched the weak perimeter attack that so entralled the Corsi crowd -- it was putting up 40-plus shots per game, yet only about 2.5 goals -- and are instead honing in their offensive chances between the dots and in closer to the net .

Should people still be wondering if this current B’s run of entertaining, winning hockey is sustainable? They certainly can if they want to wait until the season is over to decide, but the jury is in for this humble hockey writer.

Bruins fans should take the cue and start lining up for their postseason tickets. 

Because there is going to be playoff hockey in Boston this spring. Remember, you heard it here first.

Haggerty's Morning Skate: NHL teams aren't just making trades for themselves ahead of deadline

Haggerty's Morning Skate: NHL teams aren't just making trades for themselves ahead of deadline

Here are all the hockey links from around the world, and what I’m reading while feeling like Warren Beatty took the sneaky way out by handing that wrong Academy Award card to Faye Dunaway last night. Clearly he knew something was amiss and he let her step into it. Kind of a weasel move if you asked me.

-- An interesting letter from FOH (Friend of Haggs) James Mirtle about the pay wall involving The Athletic sports website in Toronto.

-- Dean Lombardi and the Los Angeles Kings dealing for Ben Bishop is about more than just an insurance policy for Jonathan Quick.

-- FOH Mike Halford has the Minnesota Wild going for it with their trade for Martin Hanzal, but also keeping him from the other teams in the West.

-- NHL commissioner Gary Bettman says the Penguins are in great shape after winning the Cup last spring, and it’s clear they’re in good hands after Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle opted not to sell the franchise.

-- Kyle Quincey is being held out of the lineup in New Jersey because of pending trades, and the wonder is who else in New Jersey might be getting dealt.

-- Gabriel Landeskog and his Colorado Avalanche teammates know the trade deadline is coming. It would certainly be weird if they didn’t.

-- The San Jose Sharks feel fortunate for the timing of their bye week as it was clear that they needed a break.

-- For something completely different: Gronk was busy doing Gronk things at the Daytona 500 over the weekend.