Family ties and a mentor who has been there before are combining with Niagara IceDogs’ blueliner Dougie Hamilton to form a potent combination that’s propelling the big blueliner up the ranking boards in advance of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.
Hamilton is playing a key role on the IceDogs, who were sitting in second-place in the OHL‘s Eastern Conference entering play on Saturday, January 22nd, 2011. NHL Central Scouting has him ranked seventh overall amongst North American skaters and first overall in terms of defensemen. And, without any false bravado, Hamilton said that he believes he’s right where he should — and he expects to rise.
"I’m pretty excited. Obviously there’s plenty of room to go up and I just looking forward to the rest of the season," Hamilton said. "I’ve got to keep playing the way that I am and I think I’m deserving of the ranking that I have."
Hamilton has seven goals and 32 assists in 42 games. He’s also accumulated 57 penalty minutes. Last year he finished with three goals and 13 assists in 64 games during his rookie campaign.
He credits his older brother Freddie, an IceDogs teammate and fifth-round pick (129th overall) by the San Jose Sharks in the 2010 NHL entry draft, with having a major impact on him during his draft-eligible year.
"Definitely my family has been a big influence," he said. "And my brother as well, with what he went through last year at the draft, he’s helped me out with my rookie year. He’s been huge.
"There’s been some other people outside that have helped me, but my family’s been the biggest [influence]."
One of the key ‘outsiders’ to which the younger Hamilton refers is first-year assistant coach Mike Van Ryn, who played parts of eight seasons in the NHL, retiring early due to injuries.
"[Van Ryn] has helped me out tremendously. Since the beginning of the year it’s been really cool just learning things from him — the little things," Hamilton explained. "It’s definitely a change having a guy like that around — before practice, during practice, after practices. So far, over the whole course of the year, he’s helped me with the little things like what the scouts want, what it takes to be in the NHL, and things like that.
"Just keep it simple. He wants me to be simple for the scouts. He helps us out with the defensive part — just the little things like keeping two hands on the stick in the corner and the tricks that help you out. It’s been great for sure."
It’s those little things that Van Ryn said he feels can be his greatest lesson to the young blueliner. "As a player, I understand what people are looking for. As a player you think that you have to score all of these points, but I look at it as they’re looking at his all-around game," Van Ryn explained. "With me, I’m just trying to help him see the whole game and play a good defensive game, make proper outlet passes and stuff. He’s still at the point where he makes a lot of the mistakes that young defensemen make. We live with them and let him play through them."
Of course, Van Ryn’s motivations in ironing out those mistakes and imparting the tricks of the trade aren’t entirely altruistic. "[Hamilton] works as hard as anybody. It’s just a tough position to play," he said. "I’m trying to teach him to get ready for the NHL game and that helps us at this level if we can make him well rounded."
While Van Ryn’s been taking care of the on-ice lessons, Hamilton’s older brother is helping him navigate the off-ice pressures — including the constant weight of scouts’ stares during games.
"I’ve told him just to not worry about it," Freddie said. "There’s already a lot of pressure and there are a lot of people watching every game — especially with how good he is, there are going to be a lot of important people like GMs watching him. So he needs to get that out of his mind and just play as consistent as he can every game.
"It’s tough, but I’m really proud of how he’s handling it. He’s playing amazing hockey. We’ve been close our whole life. When I was going through it, he was supporting me. Now that he’s going through it, I’m there for him. I really hope he keeps playing well and keeps rising."
The younger Hamilton said that while he’s still aware of the constant presence of scouts at every game, he’s benefitted from his brother’s tutelage.
"I think you just get used to it. Obviously you know that they’re going to be there watching you — and Stromer [fellow draft-eligible prospect Ryan Strome]," he said. "My brother’s helped me out a bit with that, making sure that I don’t focus on [the scouts] and play your game.
"You can’t really think about [the scouts] because that’s going to hurt your game. You know they’re there, but you just have to play your game."
That game, to date, has included a significant offensive contribution to the team’s fortunes. And while Van Ryn acknowledges that aspect of Hamilton’s play, he sees his protegé’s future as being dominant at the other end of the ice.
"The thing is that if you watch him skate, he’s probably the best skater on our team and he’s big, he’s got a big wingspan. He gobbles up a lot of ice. The way he plays, I see a lot of Jay Bouwmeester in his game," Van Ryn explained. "I think that he can be a great shut-down guy. I don’t know how offensive he’s going to be at the next level, it’s tough to say. Some of these guys figure it out later than others, but he’s been successful at offense at every level he’s played.
"I know that he can be a great defensive defensemen with a little more time. As long as we keep preaching the right things to him and giving him a lot of video, I can see him starting to understand the game a little more now."
That said, Van Ryn has no interest in stifling Hamilton’s offensive instincts — and he’s drawing upon his own experiences as a rationale.
"I know it’s a tough year for him — the kid wants to get drafted in the first round. I’ve been there and I don’t want to take any of that away from him. That’s the biggest thing," Van Ryn said. "When I grew up, I had coaches in the minors say they only wanted me to play defense, so then I had to learn how to play offense later on in my career again! I’m trying not to take any of his offensive instincts away from him. I’m just trying to stay close with him and keep mentioning the things he needs to do defensively to stay successful.
"Mentally he has it all — he’s a very intelligent, bright kid. I just think his own zone play and keep things simple. The scouts who have played defense understand the mistakes he’s making and I understand those mistakes as well. Does he learn? Yes, he learns. If you tell him once, he understands why he’s doing it and he knows how to correct it. He’s been a pretty easy kid to teach."
Hamilton said that he’s taking those lessons to heart and has committed to improving his defensive play this season — adding that he’s embraced Van Ryn’s ‘Keep it Simple’ mantra.
"This year I just want to keep it simple. Obviously, I’m big guy out there and I can skate, but I need to keep it simple, do well offensively," Hamilton said. "My numbers were OK last year — I’ve already almost doubled them this year. It’s mostly been opportunity and the team’s doing well, so that helps.
"I’m not really worried about the offensive part — just the defense and not getting scored on, not giving up opportunities, no turnovers. Once you take care of that, the offense just happens."
Freddie Hamilton explained that Dougie’s combination of size (he’s listed at 6’3, but appears much taller than that) and skill are sure to attract the scouts’ attention leading up to the draft.
"They’re looking for something unique and I think that he’s unique being that size, being able to skate that well, and being able to move the puck the way he does," he said. "I think if he just plays his game then he’s going to get noticed."
And although it’s been a few years since the New NHL was actually ‘New’, Hamilton knows that imposing size isn’t enough anymore to play at the NHL level, even though he understands that his size is going to draw attention to his game.
"Definitely my size, for sure. That’s what [scouts] see first. Then it’s my skating ability and then the rest that comes with it — the ability to pass and just the complete game of offense and defense," he said," he said. "You always hear them talk about speed, with forwards especially just they’re always talking about being fast.
"You can’t really hold them up anymore; if you’re defending fast forwards you have to be fast too and find ways to deal with them without holding. It’s just working on the feet and with being big it’s hard, but you need to work on those quick feet to stop guys."
Van Ryn, a former first-round selection himself, said he’s hoping that his teachings will allow Hamilton to navigate a different path to the NHL than he, himself, took.
"Obviously, he still needs his offensive numbers to gain attention, but I’m just trying to help him and save him from having to go to the American Hockey League like I did and ride the buses," Van Ryn said. "All the stuff that I had to learn, I’m just trying to pass on to these guys so that transition will be easier for them and in the meantime it helps us win games, because they become better defencemen.
And although Dougie will likely hear his name called far earlier in the draft proceedings than his brother did, the elder Hamilton said that there’s no jealousy and no sibling rivalry involved at all. In fact, he added that he’d love to have his younger brother join him on the Sharks — partly for selfish reasons.
"I think it helps that I’m a forward and he’s a D. It might be a little tougher if we were both D or both forwards; there might be a little bit of competition," Freddie said. "As it is there’s absolutely [no sibling rivalry]."
"[Dougie getting drafted by San Jose] would be the best case for me. I know that if I made that team, I’d be getting a lot of good passes."