Hard as it is to believe in calendar year 2013, there are still coaches in the NHL that think the best way to coax young players to perform at the top of their games in the present and thrive in the future is to lambast them on the bench and criticize them through the media.
Ice time is dangled like a carrot in front of these inexperienced youths and then benchings and healthy scratches are used like whips to try to shake every mistake out of them.
Luckily for Dougie Hamilton, the Bruins’ coaching staff, led by Claude Julien, does not subscribe to the “tough-love” philosophy of handling a 19-year-old defenseman.
Through 27 games entering Boston’s visit to Winnipeg Tuesday, Hamilton has been in the lineup every night. Although he’s just fifth among Bruins defenseman in ice time at 17:04 per game (and 14:37 at even strength), he’s seen some shifts taken away not as punishment but as the best way for the Bruins to get the matchups they want down the stretch in tight games.
Although he’s just 16th among rookie defenseman in ice time per game, Hamilton has made the most of his minutes by contributing 3-9-12 totals – tied for second among rookie blueliners in points.
Hamilton has appreciated the Bruins’ ability to manage his first NHL season without embarrassing him or subjecting him to sitting among gross sportswriters during the game.
“I think it’s been really good,” Hamilton said before a recent Bruins game. “I think I’ve learned so much already this year and I think you can make a mistake and get benched or something like that, but I think with my ice time, I think they’re believing in me. And if I make a mistake they’re giving me more opportunities. So I like that and I think I just need to keep going here.”
Hamilton’s minus-1 rating (as poor an indicator of anything plus/minus tends to be) is one sign that he’s been in some tough situations and made some mistakes that cost the Bruins. So far, however, Hamilton hasn’t done anything egregious enough to land on the sidelines.
Over the years, the Bruins under Julien nurtured Johnny Boychuk and Adam McQuaid as healthy scratches for weeks at a time until they got into the lineup. Neither player was a permanent fixture after getting on the ice, and both have the healthy scratches on their ledgers to prove it. It’s a credit to Hamilton that he’s earned his keep. It’s also a sign that Julien and his staff are handling Hamilton right, because the rookie has yet to have one game where he looked totally overmatched or out of place at the game’s highest level. That’s rare for any teenager, especially a defenseman, but even more remarkable considering the compact nature of the game schedule and the rigors of travel in the shortened season.
“I mean, there’s times where if he has a tougher night, his ice time will be reduced a little bit. But, I don’t think he’s shown anything that’s really flagrant as far as saying, ‘Geez, this guy needs to sit,’ at the moment,” Julien said. “It doesn’t mean that it’s not going to happen for other reasons, and for the better of the player, as far as growing into being a good defenseman. He’s been pretty good, he’s helped our power play, good puck movement at the top. There’s times when he makes mistakes there too, as we saw [on Shawn Matthias’ shorthanded goal Thursday against Florida], but nonetheless, we’re happy with the progression he’s shown so far.”
Four of Hamilton’s points have come on the power play, and that doesn’t include the plays he’s helped set up without getting an assist. The point total also doesn’t reflect the threat Hamilton is with his accurate shot and his vision. Opposing penalty killers have to account for Hamilton when he’s on the ice.
Even when he’s not producing, Hamilton’s having an impact. With Dennis Seidenberg or Zdeno Chara almost always at his side, Hamilton can skate with confidence and the knowledge that the Bruins have his back – that includes the coaches.