By Kirk LuedekeDougie Hamilton will likely make his NHL debut later this month. (Getty Images)
With the return of the NHL around the corner, two young players are hoping to make the most of a condensed “training camp” schedule to make the Boston Bruins for the opening contest next weekend. Defenseman Dougie Hamilton and center Ryan Spooner are the youngest hopefuls on a veteran-laden roster that does not have a lot of openings, but as arguably the organization’s top two prospects, the OHL products are at least getting a chance.
“Obviously, I was a bit disappointed in September that there was no (NHL) camp, but I’m excited at the opportunity to compete for a spot now,” Spooner told New England Hockey Journal Wednesday. “It’s a unique situation; Playing for the last three months and being in game shape should help me. Playing in the American League and having learned a lot of things from the coaches and other players will help me as well. I just want to come in, do my best, and show the (Boston) coaches that I can play at this level.”
Hamilton and Spooner will be in Wilmington, Mass. this weekend and next week as each youngster makes his case to earn an NHL job for what will be just 48 regular season games in 2013 before the playoffs.
Spooner, who turns 21 at the end of the month, was the 45th overall selection in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft out of the Peterborough Petes. In 26 AHL games with the Providence Bruins, the rookie pro is third on that team in scoring with seven goals and 20 points. Hamilton, the ninth overall pick in the 2011 draft, spent the first part of the year back in the OHL for a fourth season with the Niagara Ice Dogs where he led that league in scoring from the blue line with eight goals and 41 points in 32 games. He left the OHL in mid-December to play for Team Canada and a disappointing fourth-place finish at the 2013 World Junior Championship in Ufa, Russia.
Now, Hamilton and Spooner will attempt to put a face on what will be a limited Boston youth movement for now.
“He's physically ready for that next challenge and that's why it's disappointing for him not to have the opportunity to break camp with us and possibly start the year,” Bruins assistant GM Don Sweeney said of Hamilton last month while the NHL’s work stoppage was ongoing. “I think he would be challenged in that environment moreso than he is in junior at this point. He gets away with some things just because he's physically more capable and more developed than some of the kids he's playing against. Plus, he has that experience on his side.”
Although Hamilton is one of the most talented defensemen not playing in the NHL, expectations should be managed. He is only 19 and still has learning and developing to do, especially in the defensive aspects of the game. Should he stick in Boston, fans can expect a similar gradual and deliberate breaking-in process to what Tyler Seguin went through as a rookie.
“I’ve been playing against him for a while in the OHL and obviously, he’s a great player,” said Spooner when asked about Hamilton. “He’s 6-5 and for someone that big who skates so well and is so smart and good offensively, he’s a player that you want to have on your team. He’s a great kid off the ice too—I haven’t seen him in about three months, so I’m looking forward to getting together again.”
Because of Hamilton’s situation—because of his age, he would have to go back to the OHL and could not play in the AHL full-time until next season—there is a strong chance the Bruins will find room for him on the NHL roster. Keeping the 2011-12 CHL Defenseman of the Year means that the organization better controls his development, surrounding him with veteran players that can show him what right looks like.
As effective as Hamilton has been in the OHL, observers have noted some bad habits he’s picked up as one of the top offensive-minded rearguards in major junior. Sending him back to that environment would effectively delay his development until next fall, when he would either skate in the NHL with Boston or down on the farm in Providence.
“We've asked him to recognize some of those situations,” Sweeney said. “We want him to be clean with the puck (and have) more patience as opposed to pinching in at inopportune times just because you got away with it and were able to recover from it (in the OHL), because you won't get away with it at the next level.”
Spooner has a tougher hill to climb. Although an upper body injury to Jordan Caron created an additional opportunity in the forward lineup in the short term, the challenge the Boston brass and coaches face with Spooner is identifying the best situation for his development. As a highly-skilled and creative center, he projects as a top-six forward in the NHL one day, but he’d most likely be playing on the third or fourth lines for the Bruins at present. The team could decide that playing top minutes in Providence is better for him than a reduced role at the top level, but the player will get a vote based on how he performs next week.
“Ryan has a lot of skill and is learning how to be a more complete player in this league,” Providence coach Bruce Cassidy said last month. “He’s someone who needs to use his speed and puck skills to attack the middle of the ice. There was a stretch of games where he got away from that and was hanging out more on the perimeter where he wasn’t as effective. Lately, he’s shown more of a commitment to taking the puck into traffic and getting to the middle of the ice, and I think he’s realizing the success he has when he does that consistently.”
Regardless of whether he makes the roster or is returned to Providence, Spooner said that he understands that how much of an impression he makes on Peter Chiarelli, Claude Julien and the B’s staff will determine how soon he gets an opportunity via recall if injuries set in.
“Spooner has made an immediate impact in the AHL and is one of our top scorers because he has the ability,” Cassidy said. “Now, he’s got to learn the little things that make the difference between not just making it to the NHL, but actually staying there.”
Bruins Prospect Notes
Veteran minor leaguers Chris Bourque (Topsfield, Mass.) and Jamie Tardif lead Providence in scoring with 28 points and 23 (16 goals) respectively (as Spooner’s linemates), and are headed to Boston camp.
“(Bourque) led the American League in scoring last year and is a great offensive player,” Spooner said. “He works hard every night, and we play similar styles. He’s a creative passer and playmaker and has been real positive with me this year in Providence. It’s great to have a veteran role model you can look up to and who takes the time to help you out to be a better player like he’s done for me.”
The son of Bruins legend Raymond Bourque, the 26-year-old former Washington second-round pick in 2004 may have the inside track on third line left wing duty with Caron on the shelf. The Bruins traded Zach Hamill to the Capitals for Bourque last summer, closing the book on the bitterly disappointing former eighth overall pick in 2007.
Tardif, who turns 28 on Jan. 23, is enjoying the best season of his seven-year pro career after a solid tenure with the OHL’s Peterborough Petes. The former Calgary Flames pick was a Detroit Red Wings farmhand who posted 27 goals and 54 points with the Grand Rapids Griffins in the AHL two years ago, and has been a veteran leader with Providence since signing with Boston in 2011.
“He’s easy to approach and has been helpful to me as well,” said Spooner. “Sometimes, as a young guy coming into the room, some of the older guys can be intimidating, but Tardif’s been positive with me and is having a great year, too.”
Notable Providence omissions from the Boston camp invite list were: LW Max Sauve, RW Jared Knight and D Torey Krug. One team source indicated that all three were not 100 percent and still working through various injuries that had forced them to miss considerable time. Putting them at risk in a compressed practice schedule and expecting them to be competitive for a limited amount of NHL spots was deemed not worth the possibility of further injury.
“He's never played in the American League for any length of time including this year,” Cassidy said recently of Knight, who has played a total of four games in the AHL and ECHL thus far after battling significant hamstring and ankle problems. “So, for him it's just going to be the pace of the game, what he can get away with- playing within the system- there will be a lot for him to learn. So, until he's ready to go it's going to be hard to talk about how he's going to help us, but I think he will. At what point, I don't know. “
Marshfield, Mass. native David Warsofsky will attend camp. The former fourth-round pick of the St. Louis Blues in 2008 was acquired by Boston in 2010 for Vladimir Sobotka. The Boston University product is a small, but speedy defenseman in the Andrew Ference mold. In 30 AHL games, Warsofsky has two goals and nine points this season after leading the team in scoring from the blue line a year ago.
Russian center Alexander Khokhlachev returned to the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires this week after playing in the KHL leading up to a bronze medal finish at the 2013 World Jr. Championship.
“He got off to a slow start (and it was a) unique situation for him going back to play where his dad is the general manager,” Sweeney said recently. “But we felt it was sort of a controlled environment that he could go back and take advantage of. You're seeing him have the confidence to carry that over from the Subway Series over to his team in the KHL so he's been able to carry that forward and into the World Juniors and I think that will probably set him up to have a real productive second half of the year.”
Windsor GM Warren Rychel was able to convince the 40th overall pick in 2011, known by most as “Koko” to come over, and recent comments made by Khokhlachev in the Windsor Star show that Boston had a hand in his return to North America as well after 26 games (2 goals, 9 points) in the KHL with Spartak Moscow. The Spitfires recently loaded up for an OHL playoff run by picking up defenseman (and Tampa Bay 2012 first-rounder) Slater Koekkoek along with overage forward Alex Aleardi. With Koko on board, expect the Spits to make the postseason and if they advance past the second round, Bruins fans will have to wait until next year, as an early April look in Providence will not be possible.
“Obviously, if we have that opportunity I think it would accelerate his development piece,” Sweeney said of the Providence option this spring. “We feel pretty strongly that all the kids who get a chance to do that- be it Tommy Cross, be it Zach Trotman- anybody that comes in after their season's over- Ryan Spooner, Jared Knight all those guys- I think it does help. Systematically, getting them to sort of understand what the coach’s message is going to be and pretty high level hockey games to finish out the season is helping those guys.”
Khokhlachev, who signed a three-year entry-level deal in the fall, will be eligible for the AHL during the 2013-14 season, along with 2012 picks Malcolm Subban and Seth Griffith.