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Hamill caught in the middle

Bruins already deep at center

By Fluto Shinzawa
Globe Staff / September 19, 2011

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Like Tyler Seguin, Zach Hamill is a natural center. Like Seguin, Hamill led his junior league in scoring during his draft year. Like Seguin, Hamill was drafted in the first round by the Bruins.

But while Seguin won a Stanley Cup and has a roster spot on lockdown, Hamill has neither of those.

Hamill will turn 23 Friday. He has been an AHLer for the last three seasons. If projections hold true, Hamill will be returning to Providence for a fourth straight fall. Rhode Island is not where Hamill or the Bruins once believed he’d be as a fourth-year pro.

“Some games I watch him play, I think, ‘How could he not play in this league?’ Then I watch games where you think, ‘He’s going to have a hard time if he plays like this,’ ’’ said general manager Peter Chiarelli. “It speaks to his consistency. In Zach’s defense, he’s been in the organization for three years now. He hasn’t been a permanent fixture at the NHL level. It’s the chicken or the egg. He may think he needs a chance and that we haven’t given him a proper chance.’’

In 2006-07, Hamill led the WHL in scoring with 32 goals and 61 assists. It was an especially impressive sum because Hamill’s coach in Everett was Kevin Constantine, a former head man in the NHL whose philosophical bedrock was defense.

In the 2007 draft, the first under Chiarelli’s watch, the Bruins selected Hamill eighth overall.

Hamill’s game is one of subtlety. The 5-foot-11-inch, 173-pounder isn’t a big pivot. He doesn’t have Seguin’s dynamic speed or explosiveness. His shot doesn’t snap off his stick.

The Bruins drafted Hamill primarily because of his hockey sense. They projected him to be an NHL playmaker because of how he thinks the game.

Three seasons in Providence, however, have yet to prove that Hamill can be a consistent AHL center. In 2009-10, Hamill scored 14 goals and 30 assists as a second-year pro. Last season, Hamill recorded nine goals and 34 assists in 68 games - hardly numbers that merit an NHL promotion.

“I think the most pressure comes from myself,’’ Hamill said. “I put pressure on myself to get better every day. They’ve got a good hockey team here. They won the Stanley Cup. I’m just here to work hard, see how things go, open some eyes, and make it a tough decision for management and the coaches.’’

Most players with three years of pro experience are coming off their entry-level contracts. Because of a technicality known as an entry-level slide, Hamill is still on his first deal despite entering his fourth pro season. He will become a restricted free agent next summer, when nobody - not the player, the GM, coaching staff - knows where he will be.

“We’re strong down the middle,’’ said Chiarelli. “He understands that. It’s incumbent on him to play well. I may not necessarily be able to create a spot for him. If he plays well and there’s legitimate interest, I may look to move him for Zach’s sake. That said, we’ve invested time and money in him. If he can’t make the team, he’s a terrific depth player. Knock on wood, if something catastrophic happens, he can come in and play.’’

In camp, Hamill - he’s been centering Brad Marchand and Tyler Randell - is facing tough competition. One of the Bruins’ approaches has been to stockpile talent at center.

David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron, Chris Kelly, and Gregory Campbell should be the four centers for the Oct. 6 regular-season opener. Seguin and Rich Peverley have played center.

Below the NHL rung, Ryan Spooner, one of the team’s two second-round picks in 2010, is pushing for a big-league spot. Spooner, 19, must return to junior if he doesn’t make the team this year.

Even the absence of Marc Savard and the trade of Joe Colborne have not altered the Bruins’ depth at center.

“They probably are the deepest at center, not just in the conference but in the league,’’ Hamill said. “Even without Savard, if you ask around the league, these guys are the deepest at center in the league. At the same time, I’m coming in here working to make myself better and hopefully open some eyes with management.’’

This summer, Hamill’s focus was on skating. He estimated that starting in June, he skated four times a week, more than he has in previous offseasons. After the first day of camp, Hamill said he felt stronger and faster.

During preseason games, it will be Hamill’s task to determine his future. If he plays well enough, he could push to make the big club. He could gain interest around the league and be traded. Or he could return to Providence for a season under first-year head coach Bruce Cassidy.

“I see more confidence in Zach,’’ said Bruins coach Claude Julien. “Zach has maybe struggled with that a little bit in the past. But right now, he’s shown that after the amount of years he’s been at our camp, it’s time for him to show that he’s benefited from it.

“I find him playing with a lot more confidence. He’s one of those guys who you’ll probably see more of what he can do in a game situation than practice. He’s a smart player, a smart individual. He can make some real nice plays.

“We’ll get a chance to see that from him.’’

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto.

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