Hamilton embraces bigger stage

BOSTON -- Bruins defenseman Dougie Hamilton still has a long way to go before he reaches his potential.

And there’s no better time for that to happen than right now.

On the eve of Game 1 against the Detroit Red Wings in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, it appears that Bruins coach Claude Julien will have Hamilton paired with captain Zdeno Chara. In the past, when puck dropped on the playoffs, Chara and Dennis Seidenberg were a pair, one that is considered the best shutdown duo in the game. But with Seidenberg sidelined with a knee injury he suffered in December, Hamilton has an opportunity.

Hamilton was limited to only seven postseason games last season as he watched from press level as a healthy scratch, so it’ll be interesting to see how he reacts to the playoff pressure. He says he's ready.

“I’m more comfortable,” he said. “All year I’ve been more comfortable, especially now going into the playoffs. It was a lot different last year not really playing, so right now it’s just trying to win. For me personally, I’m just trying to play my best and make sure I’m ready for the playoffs and that the coaching staff can trust me and my teammates, as well.”

Ever since the Bruins selected him in the first round (ninth overall) of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, the now-20 year-old defenseman has progressed in his development.

"I think he’s made big strides from the time he got here for the very first time until today,” Chara said. “He’s improving. He’s learning more and more, so that’s a great sign. He’s got to continue to do that, just like everybody else.”

It’s no secret the Bruins are a defense-minded team, especially in the playoffs. When the Bruins are at their best defensively, it equals a potent offense. Hamilton is comfortable jumping up into the play and can contribute offensively with his puck-moving ability, but this spring he needs to be better in the defensive end.

“Defending is so important in the playoffs, and I think that's an area that Dougie's really improved, and he will continue to improve,” said Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli. “But he's just getting stronger as a man, as a young man, he's getting more confident with his body and with his strength.”

Chiarelli and Julien have been pleased with Hamilton’s defensive work and his ability to quickly move the puck on the breakout. He’s finding ways to skate the puck out of trouble and create offensive opportunities in the transition game, too.

“His skating has improved,” Chiarelli said. “But for me, the biggest thing is his defending and his strength on the puck, and it's gotten so much better. It still has to get better, because I project him to be a top defenseman, so he's on the right track.”

Hamilton had to learn on the fly during his rookie season. After the labor dispute ended in January 2013, the NHL played a lockout-shortened, 48-game season. For the majority of that season, Hamilton was paired with Seidenberg. This season, after the veteran’s injury, Hamilton and fellow defenseman Johnny Boychuk both played with Chara until Julien was comfortable enough to stay with the Chara-Hamilton pairing.

The hope was that Chara’s work ethic and attention to detail would rub off on Hamilton.

In some aspects it has, but Hamilton still has room to hone his skills.

“[Chara’s] a good teacher because he is a good example,” Julien said. “You know, how he prepares, how consistent he is throughout the year, all the stuff that comes with it, stuff that goes on in the dressing room whether it’s off-ice workouts, all that stuff. He’s a great example, and Zee talks a lot on the ice, talks a lot on the bench, so he’s had a good mentor.”

No one on the team respects defensemen more than goaltender Tuukka Rask. There have been plenty of times in the past two seasons when Rask has had to bail out his teammates, and on more than one occasion he helped save a victory for the Bruins.

Rask is also an honest goalie. He tells it like he sees it. In terms of Hamilton’s play, Rask has seen improvement.

“I think he’s taking the steps that everyone wants him to take,” Rask said. “He’s trying to learn that defensive game and improve on that. He obviously has that offensive ability, jumping into the play and scoring some goals and getting the points, but he’s really taking pride in defending the net and getting better at that, so I like it.”