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Hamill out to earn keep

Bruins prospect hopes he has staying power this time

Zach Hamill's points dipped from 93 to 75 last season. Zach Hamill's points dipped from 93 to 75 last season. (Charles Krupa/Associated Press)
By Fluto Shinzawa
Globe Staff / September 20, 2008
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WILMINGTON - Last September, Zach Hamill lasted a week in Bruins training camp before he was returned to Everett, his junior team in the Western Hockey League.

This time, Hamill isn't planning on such a quick send-off.

The eighth overall pick in the 2007 draft arrived at his first pro camp after competing in the Canada-Russia Super Series along with fellow Boston prospects Milan Lucic and Brad Marchand.

During the series, Hamill didn't see much ice time as a top-six forward. When he came to Boston, he looked sluggish and uncomfortable. He was sent back to juniors, where he scored only 75 points after coming off a WHL-best 93 points in his draft year.

"It was different," Hamill acknowledged of his first pro camp. "I think being in junior, not seeing anything else for three or four years, I kind of got used to that and used to that kind of pace. Coming here, it was the first different kind of thing I had. I think if any human being has something different, it takes a little while to get used to that. I think that's what happened last year."

By all accounts, he's a different player now.

"The last couple days I've come in here and been a bit more comfortable, knowing the surroundings and settings and the guys," said Hamill. "Obviously, that helps me a lot. Also, having a summer to myself. It was the first summer off since I was 15 or 16 when I didn't have anything to do. I think that was definitely helpful."

Hamill has been skating with the rookies the last four days (three practice sessions at Ristuccia Arena and one game against the Islanders' freshmen Thursday). Hamill went scoreless in the 8-4 loss to New York, but the center has been one of the sharpest rookies in camp. Hamill will be one of 10 rookies to skate with the veterans today on the first official day of training camp at TD Banknorth Garden.

"The process when you get drafted is you come to development camp, play in the rookie camp, then go to main camp," said assistant general manager Jim Benning. "At every level and step of the way, players get bigger, stronger, and faster. Zach, having been through that once already, knows what it takes. He's come in good shape. I expect him to have a good camp once the main camp starts."

Hamill, who will turn 20 Tuesday, is entering the first season of a three-year, entry-level contract. The 5-foot-11-inch, 175-pounder appeared in seven regular-season and nine playoff games for Providence upon the conclusion of his junior career. He will most likely start 2008-09 in the AHL under the watch of first-year coach Rob Murray.

The 75-point 2007-08 season in Everett may have been less than Hamill and the Bruins had hoped for. But his AHL experience served as the tuneup that made him ready for camp this time around. Hamill skated mostly on the third line with the P-Bruins and was a member of the club's No. 1 power-play unit. He recorded five regular-season assists, then added a goal and three helpers in two AHL playoff rounds.

"I can't explain how much that helped me," said Hamill. "That's probably a really, really important part of why I feel so comfortable here. All that kind of stuff combines into one. Hopefully, it carries over to all this."

If Hamill has a comparable in the Boston system, it would be Patrice Bergeron: a smart two-way center who relies on hockey sense to produce offensively and contribute defensively. Hamill doesn't have Bergeron's size or strength, and doesn't boast the explosiveness that the 23-year-old has in his strides.

But Hamill appears to be stronger now than he was last year. He said that while he didn't pack on pounds this summer, he considered it "better weight," giving himself more weaponry when he enters the danger areas in the corners and in front of the net.

"I think with my game, I'm a little gritty and a little chippy," Hamill said. "I see myself as tough to play against. I think that's what the motto around here is. That's what I want to be. If I'm a little smaller, I want to go out there and compete every shift. Going against a bigger guy, all the better. It's the more you have to prove. If I go out there and work as hard as I can, hard work is the thing I base all of my game around."

As a top-10 draft pick and a reliable scorer in juniors, Hamill projects to be a top-two center in the NHL. If he follows his development curve, he could put himself in line for a full-time NHL job next season or in 2009-10. Marc Savard, the team's No. 1 center, has two years remaining on his contract. If Savard doesn't re-sign with Boston (he'll be 33 when his contract expires), Hamill could be a candidate to become Boston's top-line center.

"His game is about thinking, having the puck, and setting up plays," Benning said. "He set up a couple nice plays in the game [Thursday]. So far, he's looked good all week."

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com.

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