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Dougie Hamilton enjoying rookie ride

WILMINGTON, Mass. -- Dougie Hamilton received all sorts of ribbing from his Boston Bruins teammates about being recognized with this season's Seventh Player Award.

The award is given annually and voted on by the fans to honor the player who goes "above and beyond" and "exceeds expectations" during the season. The joke around the locker room, according to coach Claude Julien, was expectations are getting lower and lower for first-round picks.

It was also strange that Hamilton was a healthy scratch Thursday, the night he received the award prior to Boston's 2-0 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning.

"I think I learned a lot, for sure," Hamilton said of his first season in the NHL. "I'm pretty happy with how it's gone. I've learned a lot and I think I've gotten a lot better since I got here."

Truth be told, Hamilton has enjoyed a successful rookie season. Bruins management and the coaching staff gave the 19-year-old defenseman every opportunity to succeed, and he has played well. With only two games remaining in the regular season and the Stanley Cup playoffs set to begin early next week, there's a possibility Hamilton could be watching those games from the press box.

He officially began his NHL career on Jan. 19 against the New York Rangers and quickly proved he can play at this level. Like most rookies, he eventually suffered through the typical growing pains in this league, but he was in the lineup every game.

It was only recently when Julien decided it would be best if Hamilton watched a game or two from press level, so on April 11 Hamilton was a healthy scratch for the first time. Over the past seven games, he's been a healthy scratch four times.

It's quite possible once the puck drops in the Bruins' Stanley Cup quarterfinal series, Hamilton could find himself watching from the press box as a healthy scratch. If that is the case, he's prepared to handle the situation as a pro and will work hard in practice to stay sharp in case he's given an opportunity to play in his first NHL playoff series.

"It's different," Hamilton said of being a healthy scratch. "I've never really gone through something like this in my career. I think it's good for me, though. Obviously, we have a lot of good defensemen here and I understand what's going on and it's whatever is best for the team. Obviously, you want to be playing, contributing and helping the team, but I understand what's going on."

Bruins forward Tyler Seguin, who was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2010 NHL entry draft, dealt with a similar situation during his rookie season. After playing a total of 74 regular-season games during the 2010-11 season, the phenom found himself watching from the press box during the first two rounds of the playoffs. He was not happy about his situation.

"It's different," Seguin said. "It was nothing I had ever experienced before, but I tried to take it as a learning experience. It definitely helped me, but at the time you want to be playing. It's definitely a frustrating experience being up top in the press box, especially when I'm coming off being MVP of the OHL, top scorer and blah, blah, blah -- and then you go to the NHL and you're up top and can't crack [the lineup]. It's also a terrible feeling. You don't want to feel like you're almost waiting for one of your teammates to go down because you know that's the only time you're going to get in the lineup. It's a real awkward feeling, but once I got the opportunity I wanted to make the most of it."

Seguin received that opportunity after teammate Patrice Bergeron suffered a concussion in the series-clinching Game 4 of the semifinals against the Philadelphia Flyers. In Games 1 and 2 of the conference finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Seguin provided three goals and three assists. When Bergeron returned for Game 3 of that series, Seguin had earned a permanent spot in the lineup and helped the Bruins win their first Stanley Cup in 39 years.

"When I stepped in I was so excited, so nervous but willing to do anything for my teammates," Seguin said. "Everyone handles it in their own way and Dougie's doing it in his own. He's still in here smiling so he's not showing that it's getting to him. I've told him as long as he sticks with it, and this is the time to work harder in practice and stay out there a little bit longer to make sure you can do anything you can to crack the lineup."

From a statistical standpoint, Hamilton has five goals and 11 assists for 16 points, including a plus-4 rating in 42 games this season. He's learned the Bruins' systems and has showcased his size and strength. The Bruins have been impressed with his hockey sense, his ability to move the puck and his vision on the ice.

"He's made big strides," Julien said. "He's come in here and he's been given all the opportunities, the power play right off the bat, and he's made some great plays. He's played half a season and he's got five goals. To me, that bodes well for the future in an 82-game schedule if he can stay on that kind of pace and what kind of offense he can provide us. He's been good. Like any young player, he realizes he's going to have to get stronger over the course of, not just the summer, but the years to come. He has the physique for it, and defensively, the one thing he's realized is the guys are a lot stronger and it's a bigger battle for him. Having said that, he's been good."

At the trade deadline, Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli acquired veteran defenseman Wade Redden because the team was looking for more depth on the blue line. He's been solid when he's been in the lineup and has seen plenty of ice time recently with Hamilton watching from press level. Plus, fellow defensive prospect Matt Bartkowski has played well in his 11 games for Boston this season, so there could be a healthy competition with Hamilton.

The arsenal of talented veterans within the Bruins' locker room has been a big help for the 19-year-old rookie. Bruins captain Zdeno Chara has been a big plus, too, for Hamilton. They've been partners on the blue line at times, their lockers are next to each other at the team's practice facility, and they're also close neighbors in the dressing room at the Garden.

"He's obviously improved as a player and he's matured, too," Chara said. "He's not there, yet, but he's making some improvements, not just on the hockey level but off the ice, as well."

Chara and the veteran core of defensemen on the team -- Dennis Seidenberg, Andrew Ference, Johnny Boychuk and Adam McQuaid -- have helped Hamilton's transition this season. Hamilton has been living with McQuaid, which has helped, too.

"All the D, just to be able to watch them and learn from them," Hamilton said. "Z, how good he is and how hard he works is something you have to watch and pay attention to and try to pick up whatever you can from him. It's been really good for me to be able to watch him and play with him, too."

If Hamilton is given the opportunity to play in the postseason, he'll learn the Stanley Cup playoffs are an entirely different level of hockey. Seguin learned that first-hand in 2011 once he was finally able to earn a spot in the lineup.

"It's night and day," Seguin said. "Not only for me was it going into the playoffs, but the Eastern Conference finals for my first game. Before that I got to experience the atmosphere from up top for the first few rounds and that's where I learned a bit, but once you step in it's a whole different hockey game. Once you get into the playoffs it's a whole new season and you can really feel it."

Julien has talked with Hamilton about what to expect moving forward. As a coach, it can be a challenge to prepare a rookie such as Hamilton for the Stanley Cup playoffs, but Julien's message is simple.

"You've got to keep playing the way you have," explained Julien. "What you don't want is for him to add some extra pressure on his shoulders, thinking there's more pressure. What we'd like him to be is more excited about the opportunity versus more nervous. You've got to look forward to the playoffs. This is the most exciting time of the year and that's how your players have to look at it."

If Hamilton does get an opportunity to play, he'll be ready for that challenge.

"It's really exciting," he said. "The playoffs every year no matter where you finish, or what team you're on, it's really exciting. The atmosphere, the weather's nicer, it's just a better feeling going to the rink. It'll definitely be exciting here. I don't really know what to expect too much, so I'm just excited."

With all the pressure and expectations, it would seem too much for any 19-year-old to handle. Hamilton played half the season in juniors, played for Team Canada at the World Junior Championship and then made his NHL debut in January. With everything that has happened, he really hasn't had time to comprehend any of it.

"Not really, no," he said. "It's probably been the best-slash-weirdest year. Going into this season, or last July, if you said I was going to play for [Team Canada] in the World Juniors, and Boston, I don't know what I would've thought about that. It's definitely different and a lot of fun, as well. I had fun in juniors. I had fun at World Juniors and I'm having fun here, so I think I've gotten a lot better and I think it's helped me coming into the NHL."