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HAMILTON'S RISE

The 24-year-old is establishing himself as one of the NHL's top defencemen

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames / CalgaryFlames.com

The undisputed photo-bomb king of the Scotiabank Saddledome isn't hard of hearing.

He can't be deaf to the growing number of analysts and prognosticators who keep tossing his name into the pre-season awards-worthy mix.

"I don't know if I'm in the same conversation as guys like Burns, Hedman and Karlsson,'' Dougie Hamilton is protesting. "I mean, those are pretty special players.

"They're the type of players I want to be like in the future.

"It's kinda nice, that sort of recognition; when people talk about you, mention you, in the same breath as guys of that calibre, Norris Trophy-calibre. But at the same time, it's more about how you feel about yourself than how other people feel about you.

"If anything, I think it makes me more determined. It's not like someone says 'Oh, he could win the Norris' so I start to feel like I've got it made. 

"Just the opposite with me, I think.

"I think, I hope, that it only makes me work harder.

"So that maybe one day …"

That one day may be a day closer than he imagines.

Back-to-back career campaigns for the Flames d-man, approaching the peak of his powers at 24, while reaching a welcome comfort level within an organization and a city, aligned alongside linchpin captain Mark Giordano - an annual Norris candidate himself - on a stalwart a defensive duo as can be found anywhere.

All the tumblers seem to be falling into place - click, click, click - for Hamilton. 

"I'm not sure, even now,'' says assistant coach Martin Gelinas, "that Dougie understands how much potential he really has.

"He's big, strong, can move the puck, great shot, smart. I mean, what else is there? He's got the whole package.

"I think year after year he's getting more assertive in what he does. That comes with maturity. It takes time. We saw it with Mikael Backlund, too. Backs has been a good player for us but in the last year or so he's raised the level after four or five seasons in the league.

"Same with Dougie."

Video: Dougie Hamilton's top plays from the 2016-17 season

A career-high 13 goals and 50 points to go along with a +12 last season has only whet local appetites to see how much higher Hamilton can elevate his game this go-round.

"His confidence,'' says Giordano, "just continues to grow. Playing defence in this league isn't easy, especially against the top lines.

"It's hard. There are a lot of great players out there. You can be at your best some nights and they still find a way to pot one. We always forget he's still a young guy, I guess because he's already been in the league a while.

"The whole experience thing … I know the league's becoming younger and younger at the defence position, but I still believe in the old saying: You need those 300 games to really feel comfortable playing the position."

Tellingly, Hamilton checks in at 341, regular season, ahead of the 2017-18 season-opener at Rogers Place in Edmonton on Oct. 4.

"I can always be better,'' he says. "It's nice to get 50 points or whatever but that doesn't mean you start feeling like that's as far as you can go. I'm never really satisfied with my game.

"There are a lot of factors that go into points and things of that nature. I don't know if I can say I'm going to get more than 50 points this year. That's just not the way it goes. So much has to come together."

So much is now coming together in advance of this, his third full campaign modelling red-and-white silks.

"That, I think, is one of the biggest things,'' he acknowledges. "Being comfortable off the ice, as well as on the ice. Chemistry with players makes a big difference. When you're powerplay sticks together for a while that helps, too. You don't have to think about where guys are going to be, or guess. You know.

"There's less thinking. You just play.

"Off the ice, we've got an amazing staff and team. That makes it fun to be at the rink and around the city."

With the season-opener a week away, Hamilton's multi-faceted role in aiding a strong start for the Flames is clear: Play the tough minutes alongside Giordano, ignite the powerplay, control tempo and continue to be the undisputed photo-bomb king of the Saddledome, all the while adding influence and responsibility to his to-do list.

After a ninth-place finish in the Norris balloting last season, whether Dougie Hamilton is willing to admit so or not, he's part of the conversation.

Maybe not at the front end of the chatter, like Burns, Hedman or Karlsson - at least, not yet - but he's there, in it, now.

"And,'' adds Giordano, "he's going to be in that conversation for a long time to come."

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