Saturday, April 7, 2012

Hamhuis has Always Played In-your-face Defense

By Larry Wigge

It wasn't supposed to end that way.

Dan Hamhuis who had combined with Kevin Bieksa. They played all the tough minutes for the Vancouver Canucks. A true shutdown pair on defense. They would fight and battle against the opposing teams top offensive unit -- and would succeed.

The, in the 19th game of the playoffs -- Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals against the Boston Bruins. At 8:09 of Game 1, just as the finals got underway, it was a hip check by Hamhuis that flipped Milan Lucic ... but the player delivering the blow ... took the worst of it. The Smithers, B.C., native, suffered a sports hernia as well as groin and abdomen -- and what proved to be an outstanding season was lost.

"We lost one of our key defenseman in the first period of Game 1," said center Ryan Kesler. "That proved to be our Achilles heel. We never were able to make up for Hamhuis' loss."

It figured to be Hamhuis season -- his first in Vancouver. The Philadelphia Flyers first acquired the rights to the 6-foot, 209-pound free agent defenseman for Ryan Parent and future considerations on June 19 with the hope the Flyers could sign Dan. The Flyers than traded his right to Phoenix for a third-round pick on June 25. Three clubs were fighting for Dan Hamhuis -- and when it came right down to it, Vancouver acquired the free agent July 1 -- $27 million over six years.

This year, Hamhuis has played in every game -- scored four goals and added 33 assists and had a plus-28.

I'll never forget the conversation at the 2001 NHL Entry Draft with Nashville Predators GM David Poile after he selected a defenseman in the first round, 12th overall, instead of adding some much-needed offense.

"You've got to be forward thinking so to speak," Poile said with a chuckle. "The game is changing. If you look at the teams that have won the Stanley Cup over the last couple of decades, it all starts with an active defense. Offense from the defense that's the key when the checking gets tighter in the playoffs.

"I remember Al MacInnis once telling me, 'All it takes is just one good pass to get your offense started.' The days of looking for defensemen who can grab-and-hold-on-for-dear-life-until-the-referee-looks-like-he's-going-to-blow-his-whistle is changing."

Poile stopped for a second to see if I was still listening. Then the man who served on NHL competition committees for years, continued, adding, "Now, we ask our D to make a play defensively, whether that is blocking a shot or making a hit to disengage the puck and then turn the puck up the ice. Look at how important Ray Bourque and Rob Blake were at moving the puck for the Avalanche in the Stanley Cup finals this year."

The defensemen Poile took in that year's draft was Dan Hamhuis, whose skills included shot-blocking, hitting and moving the puck. Most of all, he was supposed to have quick feet and all the offensive skills of a quarterback -- passing, shooting and playmaking. It's no coincidence that all of those qualities for a defenseman are on the mark in today's NHL, where the job description starts with quick feet, being smart, well-positioned and skilled in a game where the rules have removed those clutch-and-grad tactics blue-liners used to rely on to slow the game down and neutralize the talent of most forwards.

The transition from that neanderthal defender to kind of a hit-and-run skilled player good on defense as well as skilled enough to make the first pass or rush the puck up the ice was never more evident than in Game 4 of the first-round playoff battle between Nashville and Detroit, when all three of the Predators goals in a 3-2 victory came from defensemen -- Hamhuis, Shea Weber and Greg de Vries.

Coincidence? I think not.

The offense was kick-started by Hamhuis, when he sneaked in from his position at the point on the power play, took a backdoor pass from Alexander Radulov and quickly wristed a shot across the grain to beat a moving-across-the-crease Detroit goaltender Dominik Hasek.

Think of the evolution of the position like an end-around in in football or a halfback option, when someone other than the quarterback has the ball and can surprise you with some offense. A talented offensive defenseman is not a secret weapon, but he does come at you at angles and in lanes the defense doesn't always see -- until it's too late, because often all a goaltender can see at this time of year is a forest of sticks and skates and legs.

Smart. Instinctive. Creative. Skilled. Character. Those are the qualities of define today's cookie-cutter defenseman.

When you face that puck possession beast known as the Detroit Red Wings, there are obviously a lot of things going through the head of the opposition to try to slow the likes of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg down and trying to take away time and space from Tomas Holmstrom, Johan Franzen, Dan Cleary along with Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski to just name a few.

It's the game-inside-the-game matchups that bring us back to the selection of Dan Hamhuis in 12th overall in the first round that 2001 draft, who led the Predators in hits with 162 and logged the most ice time per game (22 minutes, 43 seconds) on the team. And did we tell you how reliable he is? No, well he's played in 80 games or more in each of the past four seasons, missing only five games in that span.

Spend a few minutes with Hamhuis and you see the pride and character immediately.

Dan started his hockey career in a rather out-of-the-way place -- Smithers, a town of about 5,550 people located about 150 miles south of Alaska and 600 miles north of Vancouver. He began playing hockey when he was four, often playing against nine- and 10-year-olds. The dirt road stopped in front of his house wasn't paved until he was nine and he was becoming too big to play hockey in the basement are out in the backyard with his dad, Marty, who was an account manager for the Coca-Cola.

Finding ice time after that, however, wasn't hard for Dan. Some 40 years earlier, the town of Smithers bought an airplane hangar from the town of Terrace for the bargain price of $1. The townspeople took it apart, hauled it nearly a thousand miles back home and constructed a rink under the cover of the hangar. Hamhuis' grandfather, John, led the charge to build the arena.

And, because the family had a key to the arena as the operators of the concessions stand, Dan and his friends were able to get some free ice-time about 2 or 3 a.m. before their regularly-scheduled 5 a.m. practices.

"That didn't stop me from drilling tennis balls in the house or rollerblading around the house," Hamhuis laughed.

Dan Hamhuis never had a size or skating problem that so often I've found in these interviews becomes a rallying point to the development process of so many playing careers.

"People sort of always reminded my dad that I was a small defenseman in a big game world," Hamhuis remembered. "But that could be fixed with a good strength program. If I had any real obstacle, it was being from such an out-of-the-way place where no one had heard of me."

That wasn't the case once he arrived in Price George, B.C., where he played junior hockey and he rattled plenty of bones with his bone-jarring hits and the organist there played the song 'Hippy, hippy, shake' when a video of the check was shown to the crowd.

"We've found out through the years that the kids from Western Canada are pretty much the same -- they are hard-working, hard-to-play-against players. Hungry players with great values," Predators Coach Barry Trotz explained.

Hamhuis was already emerging as a leader after being captain in Prince George for two years. In his four years with the Cougars, he went to the World Junior Championships twice and was the Canadian Hockey League’s all-star defenseman in 2002.

Interestingly, Dan started out idolizing Steve Yzerman. But his dad saw that his makeup made him more of a defense prospect when he was coaching his son at a young age.

"I remember how I'd sit there watching Yzerman and he'd say, 'Look at Paul Coffey. Look at the way he plays defense like a running back looking for a hole to get into the offense,' " Dan laughed. "Later, it was Scott Stevens and his hitting and his leadership. That was pretty smart of my dad don't you think?"

Hamhuis wasn't aware of Poile's prognostications on his draft day. He was, however, all over the similarities he might have with 2001 Stanley Cup finals defensemen like Bourque and Scott Niedermayer.

"Yeah, I watched that series very closely," he added. "Bourque and Niedermayer are great -- and they are small guys who graduated to the upper echelon of defensemen in the NHL. I looked at examples like that and gained a lot of confidence that maybe I could play a little in the NHL." 

And then take to the 2011 Stanley Cup finals. Dan Hamhuis was targeting the Boston Bruins.

Only his hip check against Milan Lucic ended his playoffs. 

This year, now the Vancouver Canucks know how much they missed Hamhuis. He didn't hold back -- that wouldn't be Dan's way. Hamhuis wouldn't have it any other way than in-your-face combat.

Smart. Instinctive. Creative. Skilled. Character. Those are the qualities of define today's cookie-cutter defenseman.

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