The Bruins aren’t kidding anyone. Top prospect Dougie Hamilton is going to make the team and stay in the NHL for the season. Peter Chiarelli said as much as training camp opened, making clear that there isn’t a person in the organization who doesn’t think the 19-year-old is legit. That includes Zdeno Chara.
“He's way better than I was, I can tell you right now,” the 2009 Norris Trophy winner said of Hamilton. “He's way better than I was at his age.”
The respect between Hamilton and Chara seems to be mutual. Growing up, Hamilton idolized Chara – pretty close to inarguably the most difficult defenseman in the league to play against – but Chara too has taken a liking to the lanky prospect, perhaps because Hamilton might remind him of himself.
Hamilton is quiet, hard-working and the farthest thing from cocky despite being one of the most talented players at mostly every level he’s played. If that sounds familiar, it’s because Chara has used those attributes – as well as his gigantic frame – to become one of the best blueliners to ever play the game.
Chara hasn’t been around Hamilton much – their time was limited in last year’s camp, as Chara dealt with a minor injury early on and Hamilton was sent back to the OHL before long – but he’s seen enough of both his skill and attitude to have high hopes for the 19-year-old.
“You don't see very often guys being so humble and almost shy come around and be so good,” Chara said. “We all can see he's very talented and willing to learn, so it's exciting for all of us to have a guy like that around and try to help him out as much as you can and see him growing as a person.”
PUTTING HIS BODY TO USE
When Niagara IceDogs coach Marty Williamson looks at where the 6-foot-5, 199-pound Hamilton is in his development, he feels that the biggest adjustment he’ll have to make is using his body more to his advantage. An undeniably offensively gifted player, Hamilton hasn’t needed to be physically imposing in the OHL, but that physicality figures to be a big advantage for him once it’s added to his game.
“He's going to have to learn there just about being more physical and using his body,” Williamson said. “He did it sporadically with us, especially if Boston showed up, but mainly he stuck to his game. That's going to be the biggest learning curve for him, is that it's a more physical game. He's got to use his body and he's got to understand that defense is just so important to him.
“At our level, he still liked to concentrate on the offense. I think Boston will really drill it into him that he's got to take care of his own end first.”
Hamilton is clearly willing to learn. He knows that his game isn’t physically where it needs to be, but that’s something that will come with experience.
“I think I'm going to take some time to learn that, obviously,” Hamilton said. “I've never played in an NHL game before, and it's going to be a little bit of an adjustment more to the different game.”
TRYING TO BE AN NHL PLAYER IN THE OHL
Hamilton wasn’t supposed to be in Niagara this season. He was coming off a campaign in which he had 72 points in 50 games (quick reminder: He’s a defenseman) and was the recipient of the Max Kaminsky Trophy for the OHL’s most outstanding defenseman. He had already played three full seasons of junior hockey and seemingly had no more developing left to do at that level.
Of course, the NHL lockout messed up a lot of things, and Hamilton’s projected path was one of them. Because he was under 20 years old, Hamilton was ineligible for the AHL and had to return to Niagara for a fourth season. He totaled eight goals and 33 assists for 41 points in 32 games before playing in the World Junior Championships, but Hamilton admitted he often found himself trying to do overdo it as he tried to make this season more about preparing for the NHL.
“I think this year was a bit of a challenge trying to do different things, and sometimes you're trying to do too much out there and it gets you in trouble,” Hamilton said. “It's just kind of learning and trying to play a pro game. For me, I was trying to prepare for the NHL and just keep working hard. I could have started at any time, so I was just wanted to be ready at all times.”
Given his offensive skillset and the level of competition, it would have been easy to develop some bad (or at least non-NHL) habits in his fourth year of junior hockey. Both Williamson and the Bruins did what they could to try to prevent that, stressing physical play and defensive smarts rather than taking risks and rushing the puck.
“[He’s] an offensive guy, and it's an easier thing to do at our level. We've talked to him a lot about it. I know Boston talked to him a lot,” Williamson said. “It's difficult to get the mindset out until you have to do it, and he's going to have to do it at the next level.
“I mean, his defense was good enough at our level. Most of the time, he was playing against guys even younger than him -- 16, 17, 18. There's very few 20-year-olds. It's a whole different mindset at the pro game, where he'll be the young guy and everybody will be older and stronger and bigger.”
Whether from the IceDogs or the Bruins, it’s clear that Hamilton heard the message loud and clear, and he knows what he’ll need to change in order to become the defenseman the Bruins want him to be.
“In the NHL, there's not a lot of rushing defensemen. I think they kind of told me they like D that move the puck up and transition it quick,” Hamilton said. “That's one of the things I've been trying to do when you can jump in the play and stuff like that, but just trying to not lead the rush, and [rather] playing smart and good defensively.”
THE ROAD TO BEING A GREAT NHL DEFENSEMAN
It’s almost universally believed that it takes defensemen longer to adjust to the NHL level than forwards. Sometimes it takes multiple seasons, so don’t expect Hamilton to step in and immediately be the perennial Norris candidate that the Bruins hope he can one day be.
Hamilton still has to fill out his frame, but that’s not unusual. When Chara entered the league as a 20-year-old in 1997 with the Islanders, he was similarly lanky to Hamilton at 6-foot-9 and 231 pounds (he now weighs 255).
Chara remembers coming into the NHL and noticing how “everything was two steps quicker.” He didn’t quite know how to use his size, and he hadn’t yet figured out that being the biggest guy on the ice meant more than just being able to hit guys, but using his reach and becoming a tough target to move.
So Chara went over tons of video of himself and other players to learn as much as he could as he developed his game. That proved to be only part of the battle, of course, as Chara said he ended up learning the most on the ice.
“The biggest lessons you get are basically from playing,” he said. “You play the game and you start to think about the different situations, how you could prevent certain plays, how you could play differently, maybe better, maybe less.
“It's hard to really teach exact situations. You could maybe give them your advice or what you think would be better, but it comes down really to the certain individual remembering or visualizing those situations on the ice and really playing differently the next time.”
Dennis Seidenberg, who was paired with Hamilton on the first day of training camp, remembers coming into the league with the Flyers in 2002 and being taken aback by the physical challenge. In that respect, perhaps he can identify with the potential task that awaits the highly touted Hamilton.
“Back then, I was 190,” Seidenberg, now 210 pounds, said of his rookie season. “It was just overwhelming. Everybody was heavy and big, especially in Philly back then. We had a lot of big, big guys there. [John] LeClair, [Keith] Primeau. It was overwhelming, but it helped me develop quicker, playing and practicing against those guys.”
All eyes will be on Hamilton, probably for a long time, as he finally makes the leap to the NHL. To expect him to be dominant off the bat would be unfair, but the Bruins have no doubts about what he can do and how eager he is to do it. After playing more junior hockey than he probably needed, Hamilton is ready to start all over on the highest stage.
“It’s weird, just kind of going through your career and being a vet and then coming here and being the rookie and the young guy,” Hamilton said. “It's pretty cool, though. I guess I'll enjoy it and have fun with it.”