BUFFALO NY - DECEMBER 31: Forward Curtis Hamilton #16 of Canada scores past goalie Robin Lehner #30 of Sweden during the 2011 IIHF World U20 Championship game between Canada and Sweden on December 31 2010 at HSBC Arena in Buffalo New York. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
Projecting players like Curtis Hamilton is tough. He was a mid-second-round pick but he certainly wasn't drafted for his scoring: Hamilton's had a reputation from the beginning as a guy with decent hands but who's more suited to play a defensive game. He has size but not necessarily enough to be considered "big". His 2009-10 season was so mauled by injury that it probably bumped him out of the first round, but he came on in 2010-11 like he'd hardly missed a beat. He represented Canada in the World Junior Championships and, while he wasn't a star, he more than held his own in an ultimately disappointing tournament. He ticked a lot of boxes last year.
Yet there are still questions: will the left shoulder separation and collarbone injuries, so serious he's held together by steel plates like the Six Million Dollar Man, come back to haunt him? Will he be able to keep up an offensive pace that saw him bag 82 points in the WHL last year but enjoy the assistance of three pretty talented junior-level scorers? Is he a flash in the plan, another Liam Reddox who gets our hopes up with dynamite offense in junior but never manages to translate it to the pros? Or is Hamilton the Horcoff-style two-way player every team in the NHL is constantly crying out for?
I won't pretend I know for sure. There's enough in Hamilton's history that I'll admit he spooks me a little bit. For me, though, the excitement outweighs the fear.
As you can see, I'm the ranking member of the Curtis Hamilton Fan Club. Not to say there isn't a lot of like for the guy: when the best projection (mine) and the worst projections (Jaysen and Jonathan's) are only five spots off you have something pretty near to consensus.
After all, Hamilton's 2010-11 season speaks for itself. He was the best player on quite a good Saskatoon Blades hockey team and played a surprisingly large role on Canada's team in the World Junior Hockey Championships. He stayed healthy, picked up a pile of points, and by all accounts didn't lose the defensive ability that has always been his calling card. You'd have to be looking hard to find a negative in Hamilton's season: it looked like a campaign of universal improvement.
In the spirit of at least pretending to be analytical, though, we should admit that Hamilton's sterling season in Saskatoon had some help. The leading scorer on last year's Saskatoon Blades, both in raw numbers and in points-per-game, was overager Marek Viedensky, a 7th-round pick of the San Jose Sharks in 2009 but not a real plus prospect. Hamilton's right winger, Josh Nicholls, is four months younger than Hamilton and went to Toronto in the 7th round of the 2010 draft: he's already more than covering his draft position and looks like a pretty useful prospect for Brian Burke. The real scoring standout on last year's Blades was defenseman Stefan Elliott, who turned 20 last January and showed his offensive dominance by bagging 81 points, including 31 goals, in 71 games. He's Colorado Avalanche property and has already played a playoff campaign with their AHL affiliate.
Hamilton was not a single dominant offensive player dragging a team on his back. He was a major part of a very good hockey team whose numbers reflected that. Nothing wrong with that; I bet we all hope Curtis Hamilton is a major part of a very good hockey team in the NHL someday. However, he wasn't a lone warrior banging in points against the odds and dragging his team on his back. He was a very large wheel in a very well-oiled machine.
Well, what of it? As we often say of crappy players, a player can't control who his teammates are. Hamilton plays for a successful organization and is considered by the hockey world to be a cut above his talented teammates. Certainly his ability in his own zone gives him a lot of credibility (and probably led to his World Junior selection). Given that his 2009-10 season was almost wasted due to injury, Hamilton's improvement is staggering.
I don't want to go too far, but I don't care how good Hamilton's team is. He's a plus prospect. He may not have a future better than a third-liner and ace penalty killer but who wouldn't take that? In ten years we'll be hearing a lot more of Curtis Hamilton than we will of Marek Viedensky.