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Button hooked

Bruins believe they got a steal by drafting smooth-skating defenseman in third round

By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / July 11, 2009
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Slightly more than a week after being drafted by the Bruins, Ryan Button was plopped inside a Bedford fieldhouse early this week, running sprints alongside other Black-and-Gold wannabes, calculating his hockey future, living the beginnings of a pro career rather than only being able to close eyes and conjure dreams.

“It’s a little bizarre,’’ said the 18-year-old defenseman, Boston’s second pick in the June 26-27 amateur draft in Montreal. “All of a sudden, you’re with an NHL team, here in an NHL environment. After 18 years of watching and idolizing NHL guys, now there is this slow realization of your dream possibly coming true.’’

Possibilities. Such is the world of all NHL development camps.

For the moment, the Edmonton-born and raised Button is but a possible link in the Bruins’ future, but perhaps a very important one. In a game that places a premium on smooth-skating blue liners who can lug the puck, provide backend support, and generate offensive momentum, Button has shown in camp he has the basic skate-and-pass skill set that could help him dart up the club’s organizational totem pole. That’s not likely to happen this season. Next year? Probably not. But while he toils away in junior hockey for at least one more season, he’ll be developing the goods that could all but have a spot waiting for him on the Black-and-Gold varsity.

“He looks good - mobile, competitive, moves the puck,’’ said Boston general manager Peter Chiarelli, pleased with his glimpses of Button during the weeklong camp that breaks up today in Wilmington. “We think we might have gotten a little lucky with him.’’

Lucky, said Chiarelli, in the sense that Button was ranked higher in the draft -23d among North American skaters, per the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau - than the No. 86, late third-round slot where the Bruins grabbed him. It happens. Button’s Western Hockey League junior team, the Prince Albert Raiders, did not make the playoffs in either of the two years he played there, which could have slightly diminished his draft profile. Witness: Washington’s Mike Green. In the 2004 draft, he slipped to 29th before he was claimed by the Capitals, and this past season he was a finalist in the Norris Trophy balloting. Green, too, played for a WHL club, the Saskatoon Blades, that was not a powerhouse.

“It’s a flavor that is undoubtedly hard to find,’’ said former defenseman Don Sweeney, Boston’s director of player development, musing over the dearth of accomplished puck-carrying defensemen in today’s game. “As the game has changed, there has been more of a need for guys like [Brian] Rafalski and [Scott] Niedermayer - just to name two guys who absolutely got it. Of the kids we have here, we know Ryan’s one of the better skaters, and time will tell how he puts it all together as the game gets faster.’’

During his early years of amateur hockey, Button played forward, not defense. He idolized Pavel Bure, the Russian Rocket, once one of the NHL’s fastest skaters and premier goal scorers.

“I loved to score goals, and Bure was a heckuva player to watch,’’ he said.

Only five years ago, having switched to defense, Button failed to make the elite bantam AAA team in Edmonton and was relegated to AA. The demotion, he said, was “devastating’’ for a kid with an NHL dream under construction.

“Yes, at that point in time it was devastating,’’ recalled his father, Kevin, a physiotherapist, reached by phone earlier this week in Edmonton. “We talked about not taking it to heart, not to allow being cut by one team to define who he was as a hockey player. Sometimes you have to learn by going through the rough spots, find a way around the road blocks.’’

Button, under the guidance of his father and mother, Lilian, a dietician, used the AA year to shed a few pounds, get in much better shape, improve his skating, get his dream back on track. Only one year later, he excelled in a postseason tournament that brought together all of Alberta’s players in his age group. According to Ryan, none of the players who edged him out for AAA slots the prior year ended up getting drafted.

“Kind of funny now that I’m ahead of all of them,’’ said Button, his tone more of wonder than boastfulness. “They were good then, and then I got better. Funny, I was never the one with the awards and never with the good team, and now I’m here in an NHL camp.’’

Bruno Campese, a former goalie who was once a Boston draft pick (No. 249 in 1982, a.k.a. the “Kluzak Draft’’), has been Button’s coach the last two seasons in Prince Albert. Button has steadily improved, said Campese, to the point he has become an end-to-end threat in the Raider offense.

“Without any exaggeration, there were nights he would effortlessly carry it end to end,’’ said an impressed Campese. “He’s quick on his feet, and he’s got that awareness where to go with it. We worked on that a lot the last two years, and he still has things he has to improve - finish off plays, dish the puck off to get it back. But overall, he’s got that kind of offensive instinct that we don’t want to corral. When you’ve got a kid who can pass and move into the attack the way he does, at this level you don’t want to take it away from him.’’

By tomorrow, Button will be on a plane to Edmonton. If all goes as planned, he’ll be back in early September for a rookie tournament in Ontario that will have Boston’s top kids facing the best and brightest among the Penguins, Senators, and Maple Leafs. If he can advance there, he’ll be back in Wilmington for the start of Boston’s training camp Sept. 12. Then, most likely, it’s back to the Raiders.

“Yes, I would think so,’’ said Button, a slight smile spreading over his face, “unless I somehow amazingly make the Boston Bruins . . . which is probably not going to happen.’’

Probably not. But what’s development camp for if not to touch, feel, and find out just where fast feet and big dreams lead?

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com.

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