For a long time, they did, and at the forefront of that group was Dougie Hamilton.
The 2013-14 season was a breakout year for the 20-year-old Toronto-born defenseman. Expectations for him have been high ever since the Bruins selected him with the ninth overall pick in the 2011 NHL Draft, but he has never been one to let expectations or pressure get to him.
Though he played in 42 games in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, this year was the first that he was expected to shoulder a full NHL workload. This season was a test, and by all indications, he passed with flying colors.
“I think it was pretty good — I think a lot of fun,” Hamilton said as he reflected upon his year. “So I’ll be looking forward to next year and hopefully get better this summer and stronger and hopefully be a better player come next year.”
All of Boston’s young defensemen had to step up in a big way after Dennis Seidenberg suffered a season-ending knee injury on December 27. Hamilton, however, emerged from that group as one of the players most able to handle the workload and the expectations.
This year, Hamilton played in 64 games and finished with seven goals and 18 assists for 25 points and a plus-22 rating. He spent much of the season on Boston’s shutdown pairing alongside Zdeno Chara, which left very little room for error. He had to be a force against opponents’ top lines and ensure that they weren’t able to put the puck in the net.
“I think it’s really important for me to be able to learn from [Chara], and it started last year, when I first got here, and even the year before in my first camp, when I was paired with him for the week,” Hamilton said. “So I think we’re going to continue to develop together, in a way, and hopefully I can continue to get better and make it easier for him, and he doesn’t have to carry me all season like he did,” he added with a smile. "I think it will be fun to keep moving forward and keep learning from him.”
Hamilton’s regular season was great, but that doesn't necessarily translate into the postseason.
For Hamilton, it did.
In the first round against Detroit, when many of the Bruins’ offensive leaders were struggling to find the back of the net, Hamilton helped to carry the offense. Whenever Boston needed somebody to step up, it seemed like more often than not, he was that player. He struck with a highlight reel power-play goal in Game 3 at Joe Louis Arena to help put away the Red Wings early on, before they had a chance to get their bearings. In an eventual Game 4 overtime victory — again, on the road — Hamilton set up Jarome Iginla’s game-winner.
Boston needed Hamilton’s play to belie his experience, and it did.
“I thought [this postseason] was a real coming out for Dougie,” said Bruins General Manager Peter Chiarelli. “He made mistakes, don’t get me wrong. But I think he had, by the end, a real good playoff. You saw confidence. You saw something that [Head Coach] Claude [Julien] has been working on: the defending. And he still has areas to improve there, but he is really defending with more strength. He’s not always been good with the puck, but he had a really solid, real solid playoff.”
Entering the postseason, Hamilton’s spot in the lineup wasn’t guaranteed. The Bruins had seven viable defenseman and six slots. Hamilton had to earn his keep, and he knew it. As good as he had been during the regular season, he had to be even better in the playoffs, against the stiffest competition.
And he was.
“It meant a lot,” Hamilton said of earning his spot in the lineup. “I think I knew going into the playoffs that it was a spot that could have been — I guess I could have been rotated in and out. But I had to earn it, so I’m happy that I earned it, and unfortunately, we’re not playing still, but I’m happy with how I played.”
The 2013-14 season didn’t end the way any of the Bruins wanted it to. In the second round, Boston ran into a Montreal team it couldn’t stymie, and though the Black & Gold took a 3-2 series lead, they dropped the final two games of the series to see their season come to a close sooner than expected.
“I think it was pretty frustrating obviously, but at the same time, [the Canadiens] played hard, and [goaltender] Carey Price was unbelievable,” Hamilton said. “You can think back on so many plays and so many bounces and things like that where games could totally change, but that’s hockey. [We have to] move on from it and come back a better team next year.”
In the end, Boston didn’t get the job done, but for a long time, players like Hamilton kept the Bruins in it. They excelled down the stretch and through a historic month of March, during which the Bruins ran away with the Eastern Conference. They eventually claimed the Presidents’ Trophy, something that would not have been possible if the young D’s had been unable to fill voids left by Seidenberg and Adam McQuaid.
“Hamilton, I thought was becoming a really good player for us,” Julien said at the end of the playoffs. “[Matt] Bartkowski, [Torey] Krug, those guys —[Kevan] Miller coming in in the middle of the season — never played an NHL game before. Give those guys credit —they did a great job of allowing us to have a good year.”
Chiarelli said he was happy with Hamilton’s development this year, but was he surprised? Not at all. The Dougie Hamilton he saw in 2013-14 is precisely the Dougie Hamilton he expected to see when he first drafted the defenseman.
“He’s just getting stronger as a man,” Chiarelli said. “As a young man, he's getting more confident with his body and with his strength. His play with the puck on the offensive side of the blueline has been terrific. His little in-tight plays, starting to break out — which are so important in a smooth breakout — they've been good, and they've been getting better.
“He can skate out of trouble. His skating's been improving. 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.”
No matter the player — whether it’s a 16-year veteran like Chara or a first-year player like Hamilton — there is always room for improvement. Hamilton is happy with the way he progressed this year, but already, he is thinking about what he needs to do over the summer to come to this fall’s training camp in the best position to be even better in 2014-15.
“Just looking at where I started and where I am now, and how much I’ve improved and everything, and my comfort level, and how much fun we’ve had, I think it’s been a lot of fun,” he said. “I just want to keep improving on that and keep getting more comfortable and keep enjoying myself.”