By Kirk Luedeke
A star is born in Boston, and we might as well call it: “Hammer Time”.
Rookie defenseman Dougie Hamilton, whose internet hype since the Bruins drafted him ninth overall in 2011 had bordered on the absurd among hardcore hockey fans and casual observers alike, is living up to the advance billing.
The 6-foot-5 defenseman has three assists in his first four NHL games, and is coming off of his first multi-point contest with a pair of impressive helpers in Friday night’s win over the NY Islanders. However, it is Hamilton’s poise and rock-steady play in his own end that not only brought chants of “Doug-ie! Doug-ie! Doug-ie!” cascading from the TD Garden rafters, but has earned the 19-year-old the effusive praise of his coach, Claude Julien.
“He’s been playing since September with his junior team,” Julien said of Hamilton on the team’s website after the latest victory. “He’s gone to the World Juniors, so he’s played in high-caliber tournaments. So, he’s got that experience and he’s come in here with a good jump, having played four months of hockey and right now he’s playing with a lot of confidence.”
One of the toughest barriers to a young player receiving an opportunity to play at the highest level is the decision NHL teams have to make about what is best for their prospect’s development. In a normal schedule, clubs could keep major junior-eligible players for a nine-game trial period before sending them back to the CHL. However, once a player was returned, that NHL team could not bring the prospect back until that junior season (to include playoffs) was over. Rules that prevent NHL franchises from optioning major junior players under age 20 (in most circumstances) to the AHL, forces teams like the Bruins to choose between keeping an 18- or 19-year-old not quite ready for the big show over giving them back to a junior team that does not have the NHL club’s best interests in mind. Fans saw a good example of this with Tyler Seguin during the 2010-11 hockey season, and Boston’s careful handling of Seguin as a rookie paid off with a Stanley Cup and significant step forward in his second NHL season.
Hamilton’s case is different. Because of the lockout, any tough decisions the team had to make in September were taken out of their hands. Hamilton went back to the Niagara IceDogs of the OHL, where he spent half the season before joining Team Canada for the World Jr. tournament in mid-December.
As a result, B’s management and player development staff like assistant GM Don Sweeney saw all they needed to from Hamilton at that level. Although Sweeney hinted that Hamilton in all likelihood would have broken camp last fall and remained in Boston, the fact that he was able to go back to St. Catharines and play hockey at a high level benefited Hamilton and answered a lot of questions about where he was better off.
“I don’t know if you can ever say that a player has learned everything he can no matter what level he’s at,” Sweeney told New England Hockey Journal last month. “It’s probably disappointing to him that he couldn’t start the season in Boston with our team, but at the same time, he’s had the opportunity to play a lot of minutes in a lot of different situations for his team.”
In effect, Hamilton got to go back to the OHL, show his team and the hockey world that there really was not much more he could do there, and because of the unique situation of the lockout, the B’s were then able to secure his release in January, when a new CBA was agreed upon and NHL play resumed.
This is something that could not have happened if the B’s had started Hamilton in the fall, without the benefit of 40-plus games worth of action to help get his timing down and put him in the best possible shape to enter an NHL competition level where a large percentage of players are not firing on all cylinders yet because of the varying levels of conditioning and timing.
In October, the B’s would have faced a tougher decision 10 games into the season, and even if they had kept him in Boston, there would have been a segment that would have argued he was better off in the OHL. Now, the doubts are removed: Hamilton belongs in the NHL and has a bright future ahead of him.
“I think you guys are more surprised than I am,” Hamilton told assembled media after his first first-star game performance. “I think for me, I didn’t have expectations-- I just wanted to come in and do my best. I have gotten a lot of opportunities, and I’m playing with a lot of great players. It makes it a lot easier on me.”
There will be rough patches ahead for the youngster to be sure, but fans are beginning to appreciate what all the fuss has been about with him, as they’ve watched his confidence grow in just one week of regular season action. Hamilton’s biggest test will be how he performs under pressure as teams study his skills and tendencies and adjust to his strengths by stepping up the forechecking pressure on him deep in his own end.
As the rest of the NHL, many of whom were not playing games while Dougie was skating 25 minutes a night in the OHL, get their rhythm and timing down, the rookie won’t have as much time and space to operate with, but for now- Calder Trophy talk as potential NHL rookie of the year is not all that far-fetched. Just ask his coach.
“You have to be pleased and impressed with a young player playing the way he has been,” Julien said.
For now, Hamilton has become just the third Boston defenseman under age 20 to start the season with the Bruins since 1993, the year he was born, joining Kyle McLaren (1995-96) and Jonathan Girard (1998-99).
He’s created a genuine buzz to go along with the B’s strong start to the season (3-0-1). As fans flock to the TD Garden and other rinks around the Eastern Conference to get a look at the team’s newest young star, watch for the number of No. 27 Hamilton jerseys and t-shirts in the stands to proliferate.
Hammer Time is here to stay.