One year ago, Hamilton had just played a significant role in leading the Bruins to the second round of the postseason. In 12 playoff games, he had two goals — including a key primary assist on an overtime game-winner in Detroit in the first round — and five assists for seven points. Coming into this season, he had every intention of keeping the momentum rolling, and through three quarters of the season, he did.
Then, as was a frequent refrain for the 2014-15 Bruins, injury struck and seemed to derail it all — just in time for the final playoff push.
“It’s obviously the time of the year that you want to be playing, and hard to watch and kind of just trying to cheer for the boys and everything,” Hamilton said during Boston’s season-ending media availability earlier this month. “Obviously not the position we want to be in right now, so I think we’re all pretty upset.”
“Disappointing” was the most commonly uttered word during Breakup Day 2015, and for good reason. The Bruins became the first team in NHL history to earn as many as 96 points but still miss the postseason. Entering the final three games of the regular season, they were still in possession of a playoff berth, but three straight losses to close out the season would send them home early.
And all the while, Hamilton was forced to watch from afar, back in Boston, as his teammates battled Washington, Florida and Tampa Bay on the road.
“I think it’s a pretty weird feeling doing these [interviews so early in April], and it just doesn’t feel right at all,” Hamilton said. “So I think everyone has said it in the room — and will keep saying — that no one’s happy, obviously, and I think we’re all trying to get our heads around it.”
Until injury struck on March 21 in an eventual shootout loss to Florida, Hamilton seemed to be doing everything right. During a season in which Boston’s defensive corps was, at times, ravaged by injuries — to Zdeno Chara, to Adam McQuaid, to Kevan Miller — Hamilton was the constant. He was forced to become a de facto leader, and he accepted the role. Even at the age of 21, he seemed to flourish in it.
In 72 games, he notched 10 goals and 32 assists for 42 points. He more than held his own when paired with a healthy Chara, and when Chara was missing, he stepped in as Boston’s top defenseman and held down the fort.
Pretty good for someone in the midst of just his second full NHL season.
“I think I improved,” Hamilton said. “I think for me, I still can get better and improve. I think that’s what kind of excites me, and for me now, I just want to take advantage of the summer right now and get better and come back a better player next year.”
Of course, that’s one of the most exciting elements of Hamilton’s progression — the fact that he is still so young, and the fact that he still hasn’t peaked. He can get better, and that is what the Bruins are counting on as they move forward into a future that, years down the line, will likely feature Hamilton as the centerpiece of its defensive corps.
This year, however, that progress was derailed slightly by an upper body injury suffered late in a March 21 game in Sunrise, Fla. With the Bruins fighting to get back into the playoff picture, Hamilton went down with an undisclosed injury that would keep him out for the remaining 10 games of the regular season. He would begin skating with Strength and Conditioning Coach John Whitesides at the tail end of the season, but a return to the lineup, even if the Bruins had advanced to the playoffs, seemed like wishful thinking.
“Obviously, it doesn’t matter now,” Hamilton said. “I was working hard with Whitey, improving and trying to get better. I don’t know what would have happened.”
The injury came at perhaps the most inopportune time, and it was frustrating — not just for Hamilton, but for the Bruins as a whole. They were forced to play without a handful of key players for big chunks of the season — not only on the back end, but up front, too — and just when it seemed like they were getting healthy for one final playoff push, they were left without a player who had developed into one of their most reliable defensemen.
In the end, the hill became too steep for the Bruins to climb. They fought till the end, but they couldn’t fight off a furious push by Ottawa to close out the regular season, and as such, they were left on the outside of the playoff picture looking in.
Hamilton wasn’t on the ice for any of those final 10 games, but he takes just as much responsibility for the early ending as anybody else.
“It’s the players that are playing, and it’s our responsibility to do what [the coaches] say and execute and make things happen on the ice,” he said. “We’re the ones playing, and I think it puts the responsibility on us.”
Now, the Bruins are forced to look toward the future earlier than they would have liked. They are forced to look ahead to 2015-16, at the improvements that must be made in order to restore the Bruins to the level of success they have become accustomed to achieving over the last decade.
As they look toward that future, they expect Hamilton to be at the forefront of it, and a fully recovered, healthy Hamilton certainly provides reason to believe the future will be bright.
As evidenced by this season, the NHL universe is an unpredictable one, and though nobody knows what the future holds, Hamilton expects his to hold an even higher threshold of improvement and success than he has already achieved.
Even he himself finds it hard to believe he’s only been in the NHL for less than three years. It’s hard to believe he has come this far, and grown so much as a player, in such a short time.
“I think it’s crazy how it’s been two and a half years already, and personally, I think I’ve gotten a lot better in every aspect and more comfortable and everything,” he said. “So it’s exciting to see that growth.
“Again, for me I think it’s just trying to get better every year and keep improving, and hopefully I can keep doing that.”