Play has stuck out like a sore thumb
At the base of Zach Hamill's left thumb, where there should be bone, there is a void.
"No bone right there. Just open space," Hamill said. "Mush and a tendon."
Hamill, the No. 8 overall pick of the 2007 draft, entered the Bruins organization as a clever two-way playmaker. For three straight years, Hamill was a point-per-game player in the Western Hockey League. When his junior career ended last season, Hamill signed a professional tryout agreement with Providence. He dished out five assists in seven regular-season games, then added a goal and three helpers in nine playoff games while seeing regular power-play time.
But on Sept. 23, less than a week into his second pro camp, Hamill's left hand absorbed a season-altering blow. While killing a penalty against the Islanders in an exhibition game in Moncton, New Brunswick, Hamill took a one-timer off the thumb.
When Hamill returned to the bench, he thought there might be something wrong. For the next three weeks, he played through occasional pain. Prior to the start of the AHL season, Hamill relented to a doctor's suggestion to have the thumb X-rayed. The damage was far worse than Hamill thought.
"The bone fell off and turned 45 degrees. And the tendon fell off, too, at the same time," said Hamill. "They planned to go in there, put a screw in the bone, and sew the tendon back up. But the bone looked like it was disintegrated. It was already mangled. They ended up taking the bone out and sewing the tendon back in."
Because of the surgery, Hamill missed the first 18 games of the AHL season - an unfortunate break for the first-year pro after a workout-filled summer and a solid training camp. Hamill could work out after the procedure, but he was forbidden from stickhandling for six weeks. As a result, Hamill's offensive touch (only three goals and two assists through December) remained an elusive element when he returned to action.
In his draft season of 2006-07, Hamill racked up 32 goals and 61 assists for Everett, playing under defensive-minded coach Kevin Constantine. So far, perhaps because of the thumb injury, that junior explosiveness hasn't translated to the pro game.
Most recently, Hamill has been centering Providence's third line, between fellow rookie Matt Marquardt and veteran Kirk MacDonald. Hamill also has rotated in with the No. 2 power-play unit, where he has skated with Brad Marchand and Jeremy Reich.
The 20-year-old Hamill has 12 goals and 11 assists in 58 games. Not quite basement numbers for a first pro season. But not exactly palatable statistics for a high-end offensive prospect.
"Maybe this hand injury set him back further than we all projected," said Providence coach Rob Murray. "He had a hard time getting back to where he needs to be. The last couple weeks, we're seeing flashes of it now. But it's been a long time coming. We've been patient with him. We've been very supportive. In turn, there's expectations from us. We know what he can bring. Just like with any player, skilled player or not, when he's not bringing it, you're kind of squeezing him in a we-need-more-out-of-you type of thing.
"He came in here last year and was very good for us when we played. I hadn't seen it until just recently. He's played very well."
For most of this season, the Bruins have been pleased with Hamill's defensive play. Through 58 games, he has a plus-12 rating, which Murray and assistant coach Bruce Cassidy interpreted as a commitment to defense, especially considering the center's less-than-expected offensive output. Because of Hamill's responsible defensive play, Murray believes the offense will come with confidence.
Hamill is projected to spend 2009-10 in Providence if Marc Savard, Patrice Bergeron, and David Krejci remain with the big club. Savard is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent July 1, 2010. Hamill could become a top-three center in 2010-11 if the Bruins don't re-sign Savard. Or the 5-foot-11-inch, 190-pound Hamill could become trade bait.
"He always has to get bigger and stronger," said general manager Peter Chiarelli. "He's done that this year. I expect him to do it again this summer. His skill, creativity, and natural playmaking has really blossomed. It started surfacing in the last month or so. Had he started the year from the beginning, it would have been earlier.
"We're happy with where he's at right now. Had you asked me a month and a half ago, I would have been harder on him. But he's doing a lot of things we expect. He's scored some tremendous goals in the last couple weeks. It's what we saw of him in junior. He has to continue to get stronger, and he's certainly showed us he is getting stronger. He's where we expect him to be."
Discovering the postseason?Last week, when asked which team he wouldn't want to face in the playoffs, one Bruin never hesitated with his response: Columbus.
The Blue Jackets lost to St. Louis, 4-3, in a shootout last night but have 85 points and are in line to make their first postseason appearance. Columbus is the only active franchise never to make the playoffs.
"We've put ourselves in good position," general manager Scott Howson said Thursday, hours before his club laid a 5-0 smackdown on Calgary. "We know that lead can evaporate pretty quickly in two or three games. We have to keep pushing forward and keep getting points in every game. The team is focused. They know the challenge is there.
"They know it's not going to be easy."
There are several reasons Columbus could be a handful in the playoffs. They have a go-to scorer in captain Rick Nash. They're backstopped by 20-year-old hotshot Steve Mason (the seventh goalie taken in the 2006 draft), the leading candidate for Rookie of the Year honors. Howson, once Claude Julien's boss in Hamilton, has a similar coach in Ken Hitchcock.
"They both really pay attention to detail," Howson said. "They're both sticklers on playing away from the puck and how you have to check. You have to check to win. They both preach that.
"They've both had success everywhere they've coached."
Along the way, Howson, on the job since June 15, 2007 (he replaced Doug MacLean), has made some trades that register in the shrewd, if not sexy, category. Last June, Columbus acquired gritty forward R.J. Umberger and a 2008 fourth-round pick from Philadelphia for a 2007 first-round pick and a 2008 third-rounder. A month later, Howson grabbed a No. 1 defenseman in Fedor Tyutin, along with depth blue liner Christian Backman, from the Rangers for forwards Nikolai Zherdev and Dan Fritsche. Then at this month's trade deadline, Howson swapped injured goalie Pascal Leclaire and a 2009 second-round pick to Ottawa for forward Antoine Vermette, who's been a horse since arriving in Columbus.
"He's a very intelligent player," Howson said of Vermette, who has shifted to center. "He plays the game the right way. He's very responsible and diligent away from the puck.
"He supports the puck when we have it."
Vermette, a depth winger in Ottawa, scored only 28 points in 62 games for the Senators this season. Through 10 games with the Jackets, Vermette has scored six goals, with three assists. Entering last night, the 26-year-old was averaging 19:36 of ice time per game with Columbus, compared with 18:03 with Ottawa. Last night, he played 21:21.
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.