On Tuesday, Dougie Hamilton signed a six-year, $34.5 million extension with Calgary, his new team. Hamilton’s contract was not much richer than the Bruins’ initial offer, which was met with a shrug.
During a conference call, Hamilton declined to answer questions about why things went off the rails in Boston, but his actions indicate he wanted out. Of all the possible reasons, none is more likely than a 22-year-old player who grew weary of the heavy hand with which Claude Julien delivered his message.
Still, Julien’s teachings helped make Hamilton very rich.
Like all good coaches, Julien treated young players differently than he did veterans. It’s neither realistic nor prudent for a coach to issue corrections to Zdeno Chara and Hamilton in the same way. Coaches aren’t as strict with veterans because they acknowledge their mistakes and respond in a professional way. Coaches can’t be so sure with players on their entry-level contracts.
Teenagers and 20-somethings require firmness early. If they don’t learn to play with structure, they will float through their careers with bad habits tailing them until their deficiencies overshadow their skill set (see Phil Kessel, also not a Julien fan).
So the Bruins granted Hamilton his wish. Last Friday, they traded him to Calgary for a first-round pick and two second-rounders. But any combinations of this package, paired with the haul from Los Angeles for Milan Lucic (No. 13 overall, Martin Jones, Colin Miller), were not enough for the Bruins to move up to draft Noah Hanifin, Ivan Provorov, or Zach Werenski.
General manager Don Sweeney had no choice but to announce three straight picks who will do little to help the current group.
It was a prompt and emotional decision to deal Hamilton. It didn’t have to be. Time usually dulls ill tempers.
Once they learned that Hamilton had less than 100 percent Black-and-Gold commitment, the Bruins fell over themselves to get him gone. In their sprint to boot Hamilton out the door, they didn’t get enough in return for the future No. 1 defenseman. They showed haste instead of patience.
The Bruins didn’t have much bargaining power at the time. They wouldn’t have had it after noon on Wednesday, when Hamilton would have been free to sign an offer sheet.
But power could have shifted their way in September and October. By then, had Hamilton not received an offer sheet, he would have started to feel anxious. Even if he was unsigned by the time the season started, no 22-year-old wants to miss an entire year, regardless of how principled he is or how much he dislikes the coach.
Some way, either via a matched offer sheet or a late signing, the Bruins would have had Hamilton under contract. He would have reported, cashed his checks, and played. At some point of his deal, Hamilton would have matured. Both player and organization would have thrived.
But in their respective rushes — the player’s to leave, the club’s to grant his wish — Hamilton left his former employer in a weakened position. The Bruins are out a three-zone defenseman, the likes of which Sweeney never managed and Julien never coached before in Boston.
Zach Trotman, possibly Chara’s next partner, is no Hamilton. In Calgary, tucked behind Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie, Hamilton will rip up the Western Conference.
The core group Hamilton left behind was already graying. After the last few days, their hair has fallen out because of shock.
The first steps in firming up the 2015-16 roster have not been steady. Adam McQuaid re-signed for four years, and he will be laughing all the way to the bank — until he jams his hand in the ATM and lands on injured reserve. The Bruins traded a 2017 third-rounder to Philadelphia for Zac Rinaldo, the fourth-liner with 8 career goals and 14 career games on suspension. Rinaldo skates very well despite the Department of Player Safety-issued ankle bracelet he’s required to wear.
The Bruins need help in multiple positions. They could use a left wing to take some of Lucic’s responsibilities. The defense requires improvement. After wheeling Jones, the Bruins need an experienced No. 2 goalie behind Tuukka Rask.
To land their reinforcements, the Bruins will explore free agency and the trade market.
The former is expensive by nature. Prices escalate when multiple teams pursue one player. It’s easy to overpay. The Bruins have spoken to agents for multiple free agents-to-be, but did not host any players for on-site visits.
The latter is at its fullest before the draft, with picks in play. With the draft over, prospective trade partners drop out as they fill out their rosters, allocate their funds, and step away from the table. The Hamilton trade, for example, had to take place before the draft. The Bruins wanted 2015 picks.
“We pursued this for some time, with the draft being a mile marker,” Calgary GM Brad Treliving said during Tuesday’s call. “You’re talking about picks being involved and time-sensitive currency on the table.”
Creative opportunities remain. The Bruins could chase their 2016 second-rounder, which they traded to Tampa Bay for Brett Connolly on March 2, to line up the required arsenal for an offer sheet. Even the threat of an offer sheet can force teams to deal. Chicago traded Brandon Saad to Columbus Tuesday because of such fear.
The Bruins have approximately $5 million in cap space. They could free more cash if they trade Marc Savard and his nearly $4 million average annual value, a potential transaction Sweeney said he will continue to explore.
Cap space, however, does not necessarily lead to smart decisions.
“Maybe in the short term, it looks like we took a step back,” Sweeney said Tuesday, “but we’ve also got five of our six defensemen back and returning and our core group of forwards and some young assets who I think will pay dividends for the Boston Bruins in our future.”