Even with their first back-to-back losses since October in their last two games, the reigning Cup champs sit atop the Northeast Division and are just two points out of the top spot in the Eastern Conference. The Bruins have the depth, talent and experience to make a legitimate run at becoming the first to successfully defend their title since Detroit in 1998.
On Thursday, the club’s future got a little brighter as well.
The Bruins announced they had signed 2011 first-round pick Dougie Hamilton to an entry-level deal. Hamilton has to remain with his Niagara IceDogs club, where he is tearing up the Ontario Hockey League, for the remainder of the season, but the 18-year-old could be in Boston as soon as next year.
When asked directly about whether he expected Hamilton to push for a job with the big club next year, Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli didn’t hesitate.
“Yeah, I do,” Chiarelli answered. “Based on what I saw, and based on how I think he’ll develop, I think he will.”
The leap that Hamilton has already taken in the early stages of his OHL season gives plenty of support to the notion that he could soon be ready for the NHL. Hamilton already put up impressive numbers last year, when he had 12-46-58 totals in 67 games before the Bruins took him with the ninth overall selection in the draft.
This year, he’s already matched that goal total in just 29 games, and leads all OHL defensemen in scoring and is sixth overall in the league with 12-32-44 totals. That hasn’t come as a surprise to Chiarelli, and the gaudy numbers may actually be the least impressive thing about the youngster’s development.
“Obviously, I’m happy at the start that he’s had, but he had a pretty good statistical year and offensive year last year, and he’s obviously exceeding it,” Chiarelli said. “But the strength of his game is the two-way play, the passing, the closing gaps. He’s going to put up points just because of his skill and his skating, his smarts, but I certainly don’t project him to be a high-end points guy.”
Instead, Chiarelli sees the youngster who’s still filling out his 6-foot-5, 194-pound frame as more of an all-around defenseman than strictly an offensive blueliner looking to pile up points.
“A points guy for me is a D-man that’s in the scoring race,” Chiarelli explained. “He’s going to put up points just because of his skill and his skating and his passing. We want him to focus on his two-way play, because we know he can do that other stuff. The other stuff isn’t his meat and potatoes. It’s his two-way play. I hope he’ll be a No. 1 defenseman, so I don’t want him to focus just solely on putting points up, because he can do that at that level.”
And Hamilton is already making strides in that regard.
“He’s got a real good stick,” Chiarelli said. “He knocks pucks down. He’s always in the lane with his stick, so that’s hockey sense, but it’s also a real mature attribute to have. He’s got a lot of mature skills that are already developed, and he’s still growing.”
Hamilton’s maturity is also reflected in his approach to making a run at a roster spot in Boston next season.
“That’s what I am working towards right now,” Hamilton said. “I think I’ve improved a lot since I got drafted and over the course of the year and obviously the team is really good and they are doing really well right now. For me, that’s a goal of mine, and I’m working as hard as I can and I think next summer is going to be an important summer for me as far as my development and for my future.”
Hamilton has already seen an improvement in his game from the experience he gained at this summer’s development camp and his first taste of pro life at the Bruins’ main training camp, which have contributed to his strong start in the OHL this season..
“I think it’s a little bit of everything,” Hamilton said. “I think just being in your third season in the OHL, having the confidence that you can make plays and can make stuff happen on the ice. And coming back from NHL camp with the Bruins I think is definitely exciting for me. And I think my confidence is pretty high, coming back from that. I think I also improved a lot over the summer and my shot has gotten better and stuff like that. I’m pretty happy with how it’s going and I just want to keep it up.”
Despite his success this season, Hamilton also recognizes there’s plenty of work to do before he’s ready to compete for a spot in Boston.
“Just continue to work on everything for the rest of the season and try to become a better player,” Hamilton said of what he needs to do. “And next summer, try to get bigger physically, and strong. The players in the NHL are much bigger and stronger and they are men compared to the boys in the OHL, so just try to improve physically and try to improve my game with my skating and my speed and be able to make plays.”
Chiarelli thinks Hamilton has a chance to be ready next year, but he’s not banking on it just yet. He’s not ready to factor Hamilton, whose new deal calls for a $925,000 base salary at the NHL level and a cap hit of $1.525 million with bonuses, into the mix at this point when it comes to weighing decisions on the pending free agents on the blue line. Johnny Boychuk and Joe Corvo are both due to become unrestricted free agents after the season, but Chiarelli isn’t counting on Hamilton as a potential replacement for anyone right now.
“I don’t really put them together yet,” Chiarelli said. “We’ll see how Dougie plays the rest of the year. We’ll see how our guys play the rest of the year. There’s a lot of factors involved, but I think he’ll challenge for a spot next year.”