Hurricanes Roster Facing Big Test With Hamilton Injury

Watching the replay, you could tell immediately it was serious. Carolina Hurricanes All-Star defenseman Dougie Hamilton and Columbus Blue Jackets forward Kevin Stenlund got their skates tied up chasing a puck along the boards Thursday night, causing Hamilton to fall back awkwardly on his left leg. He immediately called for the referee, who stopped play, as Hamilton appeared to mouth “I think I broke my leg.”

The next day, the Hurricanes announced Hamilton’s fears had been confirmed – it’s a broken left fibula. He will have to be evaluated before we get an idea how long he’ll be out of the lineup, but it doesn’t take a medical expert to know he’s going to miss some serious time.

The news is heartbreaking for Hamilton, his teammates, Hurricanes fans and everyone else involved. The 26-year-old has found a home with the Hurricanes and is in the midst of the best season of his career. Of all NHL defensemen, he sits first in shots (170), second in goals (14), second in plus-minus (plus-30), and fourth in points (40) – all in only 47 games. Hamilton was truly having a Norris Trophy-caliber year, and was arguably the Hurricanes’ MVP in the first half of the season.

Not only is he an invaluable hockey player, he’s a huge locker room presence and fan favorite in Carolina. He’s a very popular teammate, and much of his recovery will likely be spent away from the group as the Hurricanes continue to focus on the challenges ahead.

Dougie Hamilton, Carolina Hurricanes
Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Dougie Hamilton (James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)

Broken leg bones are one of the scariest injuries for a professional hockey player, as they can be a long-lasting affliction even years following a break. Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos suffered a broken tibia, the larger of the two lower leg bones, in November of 2013. With a titanium rod inserted into his leg, it took him years to re-gain his speed and scoring touch. Fortunately for Hamilton, a broken fibula is easier to repair and generally quicker to recover from.

It’s more comparable to the injury New York Rangers’ center Mika Zibanejad suffered during the 2016-17 season. Like Hamilton, he got his skates tangled up with an opposing player and crashed heavily into the boards, breaking his fibula. He spent about eight weeks recovering but seemed to return quickly to form and has been one of the Rangers’ top players the past two years. With hopes of a similar recovery timetable, Hamilton could possibly be back in time for the playoffs.

Jaccob Slavin Named as All-Star Replacement

Hamilton’s injury leaves the Hurricanes without an All-Star representative, and as the Metropolitan Division needs a defenseman replacement, Hamilton’s blue line partner Jaccob Slavin will get the nod. It’s bittersweet for Slavin, who will be attending his first All-Star game at the age of 25 in place of his teammate and friend.

Slavin was often touted as one of the league’s hidden stars, but the secret got out last season when he helped pilot the Hurricanes to the Eastern Conference final. This season, Slavin has 22 points in 47 games and leads the Hurricanes in even-strength time-on-ice (TOI). He’s Carolina’s go-to guy in almost all situations, and now with Hamilton sidelined, he’ll see his responsibilities increase even further with power play time.

Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes
Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Hurricanes’ top two units have been quarterbacked by Hamilton and Jake Gardiner this season, but Slavin has shown flashes of his underrated offense, despite being used in a more stay-at-home role. Slavin doesn’t have the booming shot Hamilton is equipped with, but he is an exceptionally smart player. Offensively, he excels at moving the puck fluidly, setting his teammates up with deceptive slap-passes, and floating shots into the perfect areas for deflections.

Slavin will also get a new defense partner for the first time this season with Hamilton out long-term. The No. 1 candidate for that job is likely Brett Pesce, another of the Hurricanes’ shut-down defensemen. Slavin and Pesce have each been with the Hurricanes for five seasons and are quite familiar with one another, having played as a tandem for several years. They’re both playing some of the best hockey of their career, and together, they compose the strongest duo in terms of stifling the opposition’s offense.

Gardiner’s Time to Shine

Transitioning into the Raleigh market hasn’t been simple for Jake Gardiner, who spent eight seasons under the magnifying glass with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Defensively, Gardiner has been weak, and his acumen for scoring has dried up as well, leading to a sharp decrease in responsibilities from what he’s normally used to. Gardiner had never averaged lower than 20 minutes of TOI in his career until this season, where he’s only logging 16:14 per game.

Head coach Rod Brind’Amour has been selective in his use of Gardiner, who has often played as the fifth defenseman with Haydn Fleury or Trevor van Riemsdyk. But that’s about to change. With Hamilton out of the lineup, Gardiner’s ice time is guaranteed to increase into a permanent top-four role, and when it comes to the power play, there may be a promotion in the works.

Carolina Hurricanes Jake Gardiner
Carolina Hurricanes Defenceman Jake Gardiner (Photo by Greg Thompson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

As of now, the No. 1 power play unit needs a quarterback, and that will be Gardiner’s job to lose. He’s the only other defenseman besides Hamilton who has seen regular power play time this season, and despite his struggles with the Hurricanes, he is the most offensively-minded blueliner remaining on Carolina’s roster.

In Toronto, Gardiner was a guaranteed 40-to-50-point defenseman, but has only amassed 13 points in 47 games with the Hurricanes. This is his moment – his opportunity to prove he’s worthy of the four-year, $16-million contract he penned as a summertime free agent. However, if he remains ineffective offensively and the power play suffers without Hamilton, it may be a short leash for Gardiner as Slavin remains prowling in the distance.

Haydn Fleury’s Last Opportunity?

Everyone is shifting up the lineup as Hamilton’s workload gets spread to his fellow teammates, and that includes the 23-year-old Fleury. A former seventh-overall pick in 2014, Fleury has scratched and clawed while trying to stay in the Hurricanes’ lineup the past three years and still hasn’t been able to shake off the label of being the seventh defenseman.

Haydn Fleury Carolina Hurricanes
Haydn Fleury, Carolina Hurricanes (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Now, the Hurricanes are down to six NHL defensemen for the foreseeable future, and that’s the opportunity Fleury needed. He was re-signed to a one-year contract over the summer but has been a healthy scratch for half of the Hurricanes’ games. He’ll be a restricted free agent at season’s end, and negotiating a new contract may be difficult for him without much of a 2019-20 resume to leverage.

He’s been splitting playing time with van Riemsdyk, whose contract also expires after this season, but Brind’Amour will now have the chance to showcase both of them in prominent roles. It could be a pivotal moment in the careers of both players, as it seems probable one will stay and one will go once this season is laid to rest.

Hurricanes Have Reinforcements in the Minors

One of the reasons Fleury and van Riemsdyk may be expendable is the blue line talent the Hurricanes are grooming in the AHL. Jake Bean, Roland McKeown, Gustav Forsling and Chase Priskie are all viable candidates to substitute into the Hurricanes’ lineup should they need an extra man.

The Charlotte Checkers are a blazing 9-1-0 in their last 10 games. Their defensemen are piling up points, led by Bean, whose 27 points in 37 games is second on the Checkers. Priskie, the 23-year-old former Quinnipiac Bobcat, is having a terrific rookie season with 22 points in 38 games. If the Hurricanes seek a more defensive defenseman, McKeown is a good choice to play a bit more of a rugged style.

The Hurricanes are well prepared to deal with injuries to their back end, but Hamilton is an impossible piece to replace. His injury could even be a season-defining moment, as the ‘Canes face one of the toughest schedules of all NHL teams in the final 35 games.

No team is ever safe from injuries, and the Hurricanes have been lucky this season by mostly staying healthy. But if this team really is a Stanley Cup threat, they’ll simply have to find a way to overcome the obstacle, and that will require contributions from every player who will see an increased role in Hamilton’s absence.