Last season at practice, Niagara IceDogs forward Freddie Hamilton sometimes would give a little extra shot to his teammate and younger brother Dougie, a defenseman on the team.
"It's fun going against him in practice," Freddie told NHL.com. "I give him a shove when I get the chance because I know I might not get the chance in the future if he keeps on growing. I'll take as much opportunity as I can doing that."
Now that Dougie Hamilton has grown into a 6-foot-4, 187-pound top defense prospect for the 2011 Entry Draft, those opportunities might have run out.
Hamilton is the top-rated North American defenseman (No. 4 among all skaters) in NHL Central Scouting's final rankings for the 2011 Entry Draft.
He was fourth among all Ontario Hockey League defensemen in the regular season with 46 assists and 58 points, and his plus-35 rating led the team. He followed that with 16 points in 14 OHL playoff games, tied for second among all blueliners.
Those numbers are better across the board from last season, when he had just 16 points and a minus-8 rating in 64 games.
"Dougie is one of the best skaters in the draft," Central Scouting's Chris Edwards told NHL.com. "He handles the puck with confidence and a lot of poise. He moves the puck very well, especially on the power play. He makes very few mistakes in a game and his decision-making is excellent."
Hamilton does all those things well now, but he's constantly working to get better. Part of that comes with spending time with first-year assistant coach Mike Van Ryn. Van Ryn retired this past summer after eight NHL seasons as a defenseman with the Blues, Panthers and Maple Leafs.
"It's been great so far, really awesome," Hamilton told NHL.com. "Little stuff he gives me on the bench during games, in practice -- it's huge. He helps so much in practice, with our shots, little plays. Different kinds of stuff. He does video, which helps. … Teaching us little tips that helped him out."
One of the things Hamilton is learning to do is use his size as an asset. It's been a challenge as Hamilton continues to grow into his frame, but he's starting to enjoy the more physical aspects of the game.
"In the past couple years I haven't had that big-body presence," Hamilton said. "I've learned other ways how to deal with that stuff. Now that I've gotten stronger, it's been a little bit of an adjustment to get used to it, but I think I'm pretty good at it."
It's a mentality Niagara coach Marty Williamson constantly is preaching to Hamilton.
"Body positioning and getting your body on people, leaning on them, it's so important," Williamson told NHL.com. "Makes life easier for that first pass. We just don't want him getting into stick battles. He's got to get in there and push and use his skills, that's what makes him at times dominant in games. At other time he forgets about it, but you just need to keep reminding him the physical part is an important part for him."
Hamilton said now that he's gotten stronger, he's starting to like the banging more.
"It becomes more fun being able to push guys off the puck," he said. "When you're stronger it's easier to do that. I realize I'm able to do that this year and that's … I do have fun with it. I do have fun battling with guys in corners. I like doing it."
Another thing he likes is the daily battles with Freddie. The brothers are separated by 18 months, which has made the relationship a competitive but friendly one.
"Growing up, we've been best friends, so having your best friend on the team going into the OHL and this season as well has been huge," Dougie said. "Just sharing stuff and sharing stories and helping each other out. When you're brothers it's easier to do that. When you're brothers and you're with each other all the time, definitely fun for sure."
Dougie also had a first-hand look at what Freddie went through last season when he was being scouted. He was taken by the Sharks in the fifth round last June, and now is passing along his advice to Dougie.
"He's helped me a lot, for sure," Dougie said. "Him going through it, just by watching what he went through, his feelings, different stuff. … He's given me a lot (of advice) for this year -- not to think about the scouts. They're going to be there, just play your game and have fun. You can't think about them because that'll affect the way you play. Just play your game."
That's similar to the messages Williamson has been giving him.
"There's 30 teams and you're very well thought of," Williamson said. "Someone is going to call your name quite early. Then you're going to move on to the next stage of your career, trying to make an NHL team. Right now let's worry about what the IceDogs have to do and the rest will take care of itself."
With all his assets, Williams calls Hamilton "a machine."
"Dougie gets himself very prepared for hockey games," Williamson said. "He's very diligent preparing himself. He goes about it very business-like. He's mature beyond his years.
"I was extremely worried that my blue line wasn't going to be able to hang in there. We're very young on the back end, so Dougie is logging a lot of ice time and the team is very successful."
"Especially at this level, you find guys that are awkward or don't have a lot of explosion," Williamson said. "You're 6-foot-4, you don't have a lot of explosion (but) the jump off his skates is phenomenal. When he sees those opportunities to jump into the rush or lead the rush, I really believe it's untapped what he can do. He's a very special defenseman in our league. He just has to understand the details and he's going to be a very good pro."
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK