- Craig Custance
BOSTON -- It's always a day that's a bit of a revelation about the next wave of NHL stars. Each year, the NHL brings a group of players projected to be picked at the top of the coming draft to a Stanley Cup finals game, where they're introduced to the media and some players while taking in an NHL game at its highest level.
In the process, we learn about these new stars. Such as, nobody makes Patrick Kane smile quite like Snoop Dogg. When he visited Anaheim during the 2007 Stanley Cup finals as part of the annual prospect tour, Kane sat right in front of the entertainer. He took a picture with him that he still has framed at home.
"My dad said it was the biggest I've ever smiled," Kane said Monday. "It was funny, he had his two little kids with him. One was little Snoop and the other was Spanky or something. It was fun doing that. We had a great time."
On Tuesday, it was the 2013 draft class making the rounds -- Seth Jones, Nathan MacKinnon, Jonathan Drouin and Darnell Nurse sat down Monday afternoon and chatted with the media after spending time meeting some of the Bruins and Blackhawks. As the media piled into the Bruins dressing room in droves following the Boston morning skate, the group stood in the middle of the room observing what it was like to prepare for a game in the finals. The sheer number of people was an eye-opener for Nurse.
"I've never seen so many media people in one room," Nurse said. "As a professional athlete, that's what comes with it."
About 10 feet away, Bruins defenseman Dougie Hamilton sat at his dressing room stall after a full practice. Just two short years ago, he was the kid making the rounds in this same city, joining guys such as Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Gabriel Landeskog.
Now, he is helping his team prepare for the Blackhawks, ready to take the ice if needed. Life can change in a hurry.
"It's pretty cool to look at it now," Hamilton said. "Coming here two years ago I didn't know what was going to happen in the draft. I just came here excited to watch a hockey game."
He recalled sitting in the stands as the Bruins blew the doors off the Vancouver Canucks in one of the most lopsided games in recent Stanley Cup finals history. Hamilton was impressed by the passion and stamina of the Bruins crowd that night.
"The crowd was standing for 10 minutes straight cheering in the first period," he said. "I don't think I've ever seen that before, going to games in Toronto. It was an eye-opener."
On Monday night, he watched again. Hamilton hasn't played in this postseason since a May 23 overtime loss to the Rangers. He had three points in four games against the Rangers, but this time of year it isn't just about offensive production from the back end. It's playing with a physical edge, wiping out bodies in front of the net. Elements of Hamilton's game that are still in development mode.
So the learning process right now might not be in the form he'd prefer.
"I want to be playing," he said. "For me, [I'm] working as hard as I can, trying to have fun. I don't know what's going to happen, if I might play again or not. Just trying to work hard and learn and experience this. I've kind of seen as the playoffs have gone on, it's a lot tighter hockey and a lot different than regular season."
It was a strong regular season for Hamilton, who played in 42 games, scoring five goals with 11 assists. The 6-foot-5, 20-year-old also played 32 games in the OHL with Niagara, although that must feel like a lifetime ago right now.
"It's been a good year for him. He probably had more opportunities and ice time than a 19-year-old could ever imagine when he came to us. He's played power plays, he's done a lot of things," coach Claude Julien said Monday. "He's a young player that I see a lot of good things down the road for him."
Just two wins away from a Stanley Cup, the present is pretty darn good for the Bruins, but Hamilton's presence is a reminder that the future could be even better for the Boston blue line. While Hamilton learns what he can by watching and practicing with the B team ("You get a little annoyed with each other when you're skating all the time with them," he joked), Torey Krug continues to hold his own on the biggest stage. The 22-year-old defenseman played his best game of the finals Tuesday, continuing his mix of offensive flair with a willingness to play physical hockey. The Bruins also have 25-year-old Matt Bartkowski in the mix. He has played seven games this postseason as an able fill-in while veteran defensemen recovered from injuries.
The development of those three young blueliners provides GM Peter Chiarelli with great flexibility. In analyzing the Bruins' cap room for next season, one agent anticipated a shift toward youth on defense next year for the Bruins.
"[Andrew] Ference is gone," he said. "And they might move another D if Krug is for real."
Ference is an unrestricted free agent and with the emergence of the young depth on defense in Boston along with the drop in salary cap, it's likely his biggest payday is elsewhere. The top pair of Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg are locked in and Johnny Boychuk has two years left at a reasonable cap hit of about $3.4 million. It the Bruins really want to clear a path for their young defensemen, Boychuk would be the one to trade. But his big shot, playoff experience and physical presence along with a limited no-trade clause make that a tough call. Especially when the current combination is working so well.
It may come down to whether the Bruins believe Hamilton is ready for consistent top-four minutes next season. Despite being passed over for Krug right now, he's still the young defenseman with the biggest upside on the roster.
One respected NHL talent evaluator said Monday that he was surprised Hamilton has been passed over right now during the Bruins' playoff run.
"Yeah, I have been a little bit. He obviously had great success almost immediately. Sometimes that happens," he said. "At the end of the day, if you want me to bet on one of [the young defensemen] to be a Hall of Fame D-man in the NHL, I'm taking Hamilton."
More likely, he said, Hamilton still projects as a top-three defenseman once his game rounds out.
"That much I feel very comfortable with," he said. "He's a very talented guy. He has more maturity than I thought he did. He came to the NHL more quickly than I thought he would. On the other side of the coin, he plays in a unique situation where he has guys in front of him. He doesn't have to jump in there."
And so, as he did two years ago as a prospect, he watches. And waits. His contribution to the Bruins will happen eventually, it's just a matter of when.
"I don't think I can really complain much now," he said. "I'm lucky to be where I am. I just have to keep enjoying myself."