Portland coach Mike Johnston if fully aware of who Justin Hamonic is. After playing the Tri-City Americans three times in the last month, the 6-foot-4, 210-pound defenseman leaves an impression.
Hes a big, physical guy, Johnston said. He is imposing out there. He takes up a lot of space and closes in on guys quick. He doesn't give you a lot of room, especially in the neutral zone, so you really have to be aware of where he is on the ice.
Hamonic, 19, has come a long way since his rookie season two years ago when he played just 39 games.
Hes probably one of the best examples of that slow, steady climb, said Tri-City coach Jim Hiller. This year, he seems to have taken a real leap from preseason to now. He thinks the game really well. Hes being more assertive and taking charge. We rely on him a lot more and that builds confidence. In big opportunities, he has been able to rise to the challenge.
A native of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Hamonic was taken in the fifth round of the 2009 WHL bantam draft. When he came into the league at 17, the Americans had a strong corps of defensemen that included Zach Yuen, Drydn Dow, Mitch Topping, Sam Grist and Derek Ryckman. Hamonic knew he would have to earn his ice time.
I knew coming in I was one of the young guys and I wouldnt play a lot, Hamonic said. We had good forwards (Brendan Shinnimin, Adam Hughesman and Patrick Holland) and a strong D. I stuck it out and worked hard and improved every day. Its paid off throughout my career. Thats the thing Im trying to pass on to the young guys dont give up, dont lose hope. It will pay off if you work hard.
Hamonics hard work and perseverance have come back to him tenfold.
After playing 39 games during his rookie season, he played all 15 playoff games. Last season, he played all 72 regular-season games and the playoffs. He has one career goal and 13 assists.
Looking back, this is why I worked hard, Hamonic said. Im trying to help the team as much as I can on the ice, and if thats playing as much as I am now, I love to do it. Things Ive done in the off season and the past two years are paying off now.
The type of player he is, the type of contributions that he makes get overlooked a lot of times because the game happens so fast, Hiller said. Not a lot of goals and assists its the things in between, thats where he excels. As coaches and teammates, we get it. We appreciate all that he does in big time moments that dont show up on the scoreboard.
Hamonic is your quintessential stay-at-home defenseman. He isnt as rugged as some of the leagues other top defensemen, but hes reliable.
Trust is one of the big things out there, Hamonic said. As much as I can gain Jims trust, he will put me out there in situations that are crucial in the game and thats when I want to be playing. Thats one of things I try to do is make the smart play at the time that we need.
Hiller said Hamonic is one player he can always count on, but he isnt without his weaknesses.
He is dependable night after night, and hes being more physical, Hiller said. Guys with big bodies, you want to be mean and more aggressive. That part has been an evolution for him. He needs to be a little bit more rugged and hopefully he will pick that up a bit more.
Hiller can praise Hamonic and fans can appreciate his play, but theres one player who counts on him to be at his best every night goalie Eric Comrie.
Hamo is just a rock back there, Comrie said. Every single day you are going to get the same effort from him. Every single time there is a battle out front he wins it. Every time there is a battle along the board he wins it. He is a warrior out there. Theres no other word to describe him. He blocks everything. Doesnt matter if its coming for his face, hes going to put his teeth in front of the puck.
Hes the hardest working man I have ever met in my life. Hes earned every bit of everything he has. I really hope (NHL) teams notice that.
In addition to his defensive play, Hamonic also is one of the Americans top penalty killers. Tri-City ranks seventh among the 22 WHL teams in the penalty kill standings.
We do a great job on the penalty kill from Marcus (Messier) to Tops (Topping) and Eric has helped us out a lot, Hamonic said. Its one of the things we can take pride in this year. I have done it my whole life and its one of the things I like to do. Others like to score goals, Id rather block shots. Thats just me. Thats what I love to do.
As an opposing coach, Johnston appreciates Hamonics play on special teams.
He is imposing out there, Johnston said. He takes up a lot of space, he closes in on guys quick. Hes rangy (a measured wing span of 6 feet, 7 1/2 inches) and he battles.
And as much as Comrie relies on Hamonics defensive play, the team benefits from his leadership. Topping is the team captain and Hamonic and Connor Rankin are the alternate captains.
Hes probably the most important player on our team and the most underrated, Comrie said. He goes out there every single night and you know what you are going to get out of No. 6. His greatest strength is his defensive play and blocking pucks, but his leadership is another one.
For Hamonic, its all part of paying it forward.
I learned from some of the older guys and Im passing that on to the younger guys, Hamonic said. Thats why Tri-City has been so successful the past 8-10 years. I want to try and keep that tradition alive.