His minutes are growing, more than expected, and so, too, is Dougie Hamilton’s game. Only 138 games into his NHL career — roughly the four-year workload of a Division 1 college player — the 21-year-old Bruins defenseman is turning into the big man on campus behind the Boston blue line.
Not that Heavy Duty Hamilton was necessarily the plan. But once Bruins captain Zdeno Chara became hors de combat with a knee injury Oct. 23, the focus on propping up the Boston defensive zone shifted to backline by committee. At this hour, Hamilton is turning into the committee’s backbone.
Consider: Hamilton leads all Bruins this season in average ice time with 22:29 per game. In the four games that Chara has been absent the Black-and-Gold production line, Hamilton has clocked an average of 24:40, a stout 5:34 more than what the former first-round draft pick (No. 9 overall, 2011) averaged all last season. The gangly, wide-eyed, slick-skating Hamilton is no longer the wunderkind in waiting, but rather an essential element to the Bruins remaining among the league’s elite franchises.
“I think you are going to see someone who probably recognizes that he can rush the puck because of his size and skating ability — he can rush it at will,’’ said Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli, pondering what could be Hamilton’s career trajectory. “Because of his sense for the game, he will be able to pick his spots, a guy who can control the puck.’’
Such commodities are rare in today’s game. The Bruins haven’t had a true wheeler-dealer with the puck since Ray Bourque’s days, which came to a bittersweet end on Causeway in March 2000. Hamilton doesn’t have Bourque’s bulky build or his breadth of game, but he has a growing command of skating and puck-moving skills that he’ll now have to augment with stout defense during Chara’s 4-6-week absence.
“Bigger minutes, as was evident,’’ said a smiling Hamilton, musing over his protracted workload last Tuesday night when he logged a hefty 28:32 vs. the Minnesota Wild. “It’s up to me to make the most of the opportunity. I enjoy . . . I think I play better when I am playing more . . . you are in the game more. So I think this is going to help me. Just being relied on more allows you to play with more confidence and everything. I think that’s a good situation, to try to keep proving that I can handle it, keep trying to help the team win.’’
Never has Hamilton looked more bold and confident on offense than Oct. 25 in Toronto when he dashed out of the Boston end with the puck, pulled away from two Leafs in an eye-popping burst of power, and finished off with a doorstep wrist shot for a goal.
“That,’’ said Chiarelli, “was freight-train skating.’’
“I actually saw him do that in preseason, too, against Detroit,’’ said Bruins president Cam Neely, a fellow freight train alum. “I saw that and I was like, ‘Wow, OK . . . ’ I think that particular goal is something we are probably going to see more as the opportunity arises.’’
Hamilton’s off-ice life also is in transformation. Ever since arriving in the Hub in the lockout-shortened season of 2012-13, he lived with fellow defenseman Adam McQuaid. This season, Hamilton opted to venture out on his own and is living in a hotel while his new downtown digs are being readied.
“His bags weren’t out on the curb,’’ joked McQuaid, noting that he enjoyed Hamilton’s company over their tenure as roomies, the two usually mindful not to carry the job home with them. “At the same time, we’re hockey players, and we’re home, so we are going to talk hockey. We play the same position and we’re both righthanded defensemen. So we’d talk about different situations like, ‘What do you see, and how do you feel?’ Dougie pays really close attention to detail, I found . . . little things like what curve a guy has on his stick, or his skates. So kind of cool that way. I never thought to look for those kinds of things.’’
Living on his own, said Hamilton, was not something he wanted to try upon entering the NHL. He was only 19 and had never lived away from home, atypical of Canadian junior players who usually leave home and live with host families (billets) once setting out on the NHL fast track. But the Hamiltons lived in St. Catharines, Ontario, the same town where his OHL team played, allowing him to live at home and even attend the same high school where his mother was once a star basketball player.
Now truly alone for the first time in his life, Hamilton is undergoing an adjustment that he’s happy he didn’t attempt when he first arrived in Boston.
“A lot of guys my age are still in college, living with all their buddies, which I think ideally is what I would want,” he said. “But it’s reality and I’ll have to get used to it.’’
With Chara out, Hamilton also must get accustomed to a new role and a new full-time backline partner. Chara, the game’s top shutdown defenseman, sometimes partnered with Hamilton in putting a clamp on the opposition’s top lines. However, Boston’s true shutdown duo was the Chara-Dennis Seidenberg combination. These days, Seidenberg has shifted to the left side, the spot previously held by Chara, and Hamilton is his running mate.
“The first couple of months are all about being excited and adrenaline and being happy to be in the league,’’ said Seidenberg, reflecting on the typical learning curve of a young player. “Then suddenly the everyday grind kicks in and you start to be tired, and consistency is a big part of it when you are young, needing to bring it every night. I mean, it’s still hard for older guys like myself, but it is really hard when you are young, you have to learn how to prepare yourself, every day, every game. But I think Dougie’s doing a great job with it.’’
The task is all the harder, noted Chara, when the job definition is primarily keeping the other team off the scoreboard. Because of his offensive gifts, Hamilton arrived in the NHL wired for puck moving and goal scoring. The defensive part of his game, while not shabby, has been a work in progress.
“It is hard to be facing every night the best lines,’’ said Chara, who walked gingerly through the dressing room of the club’s practice facility in Wilmington on Friday. “A player has to be always willing to do whatever you need, and sacrifice maybe some of his personal agenda. Your No. 1 job is to shut down the top line, and if you can contribute offensively, then good. For some people it is hard, they can stay that way. And anybody can do that for just two-three games. But to do it for 70-80 games, facing the best players in the world, that is challenging; you have to be mentally ready to do that. Dougie hasn’t been that long with us, but he has shown the potential for having a great future with his improvement so far.’’
“He’s got more confidence now and making plays in carrying pucks,’’ added coach Claude Julien. “We’ve seen it in the playoffs against Detroit and the other night [against Toronto]. We see it at different times where he just skates right through teams and has that great release. He’s made a lot of strides in a lot of ways.’’
The learning curve continues. Dougie Hamilton, lanky protege and backline fixer-upper, one day could look back at this stretch as the most important growth spurt of his career.
“I think I have gotten a lot better, obviously, in every aspect,’’ he said. “Physically, I have gotten stronger and faster and that has helped my game, and then I guess my defense has improved a lot since I first got here. I spent a lot of time on that last year and I continue to focus on that and I think that is the biggest thing I need to keep working on.’’