Devils’ Hamilton & Graves Make for Ideal Top Defense Pair

The New Jersey Devils’ defense is going to have a much different look next season. Dougie Hamilton was their big splash of the summer, and his performance with the Carolina Hurricanes sure suggests he’ll be a significant upgrade for the Devils. But he wasn’t the only addition general manager Tom Fitzgerald made to the team’s blue line this offseason. 

Ahead of the expansion draft, the Devils acquired Ryan Graves from the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for a second-round pick and prospect Mikhail Maltsev. Had the Avalanche not dealt Graves, they would’ve likely lost him for nothing to the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft. Fortunately, that turned out to be the Devils’ gain. Over the past two seasons, Graves logged some tough minutes for the Avalanche, with plenty of his ice time coming alongside Cale Makar. 

Meanwhile in Carolina, Hamilton played top-pair minutes and was regularly paired alongside Jaccob Slavin. Slavin’s ability to play hard defensive minutes allowed Hamilton to drive play and lead the way offensively. While Graves isn’t the defenseman Slavin is, Hamilton shouldn’t suffer with him as his partner. And with them both now in New Jersey, there’s a lot to like about what they offer as a potential top defense pair. 

Graves Didn’t Only Thrive With Makar

Graves just recently broke into the NHL, with the 2019-20 season being his first full one in the league. He finished with 26 points in 69 games — nearly a 31-point pace over 82 games, not bad for a rookie playing a top-four role. His play was good enough for it to allow head coach Jared Bednar to give him a majority of his five-on-five ice time with Makar. By the time 2019-20 concluded, the two had logged 491 minutes and 55 seconds together at five-on-five. And as you may have guessed, their results were quite good. 

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As a pair, Graves and Makar finished with a Corsi for percentage (CF%) 53.1 percent and expected goals percentage (xG%) of 53.9 percent in 2019-20. It is worth noting that Graves’ on-ice results dipped a bit when not paired with Makar. But for the most part, they were still positive alongside other defensemen: 

Defense Partner5-on-5 Ice TimeCF%xG%
Ian Cole155:3351.553.6
Samuel Girard137:5252.154.4
Erik Johnson123:135045.01
Nikita Zadorov90:3142.532.2

Aside from Graves’ disastrous minutes with Zadorov, he excelled with his other defense partners, though to a lesser extent with Johnson. Subtract the limited ice time with Zadorov, and Graves had a CF% of 52.3 percent and xG% of 52.7 percent. The Avalanche were controlling play with him on the ice more often than not, and it wasn’t just when he took a shift with Makar. 

Fast forward to 2020-21, and Graves’ success seemed to carry over. Makar was still his most common defense partner, and their results were overwhelmingly positive. The pair had a CF% of 63.5 percent and xG% of 59.4 percent, so the Avalanche were straight-up running teams into the ground with them on the ice. With that said, it came in a much smaller sample size, as the two only logged 157:34 together at five-on-five. Overall, Graves’ minutes were split much more evenly among other Avalanche defensemen:

Defense Partner5-on-5 Ice TimeCF%xG%
Samuel Girard153:4255.759.99
Devon Toews148:2158.561.8
Conor Timmins122:3156.154.03
Jacob MacDonald87:5559.256.2

Much like 2019-20, Graves’ on-ice results were still in the black, and it came with much less time alongside Makar. The Avalanche were completely steamrolling teams with him on the ice. Part of that is because they were a top 2-3 team in the NHL in 2020-21, but he also seemed to find success with any defense partner he had this past season.

And if you thought that maybe Graves’ numbers were a result of him getting a ton of ice time with Nathan MacKinnon, that wasn’t necessarily the case. He spent just 149:34 minutes with MacKinnon at five-on-five and 669:51 without him this past season. His results without Mackinnon? A CF% and xG% of 56.3 percent. That was a stark improvement from a season ago when his CF% was 49.96 percent and xG% was 47.5 percent without MacKinnon being on the ice. Graves will likely get plenty of minutes with Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier in New Jersey. But if 2020-21 is a true indicator, he should fare well away from the Devils’ top two centers. Plus, he should have Hamilton by his side.

Hamilton Can Carry a Defense Pair

Now that we’ve broken down Graves’ results, let’s get to Hamilton. Scouring his numbers was much more straightforward than Graves. After the Hurricanes acquired Hamilton three years ago, he immediately found himself paired with Slavin. And that’s who he’d end up spending a substantial amount of his ice time with while in Carolina. Over the last three seasons, they spent 2434:25 minutes together at five-on-five and with stellar on-ice results. 

As a pair, Slavin and Hamilton had a CF% of 57.3 percent and xG% of 57.2 percent. Both those numbers rank second-best in the NHL for a defense pair since the start of 2018-19, with only the Jeff Petry and Brett Kulak pairing having better on-ice results (min. 1,000 minutes played). So it goes without saying that the Hamilton and Slavin duo was one of the best defense pairs in the league over the last three seasons. 

Dougie Hamilton, Carolina Hurricanes
Dougie Hamilton as a member of the Carolina Hurricanes (Photo by Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

What worked well about that pairing is Slavin’s defensive ability allowed Hamilton to operate as the offensive defenseman he is. But while Slavin was a big part of that unit, it’s not like he propped up Hamilton defensively. In fact, it was Slavin’s on-ice stats that dropped when paired away from Hamilton. In 1210:27 of ice time away from Hamilton, Slavin’s CF% dropped to 49.8 percent, while his xG% dropped to 50.6 percent. 

Meanwhile, Hamilton’s on-ice stats remained steady or even improved away from Slavin. In 647:10 away from Slavin, Hamilton had a CF% 57.2 percent and xG% of 59.5 percent. Plus, in each of the last three seasons, Hamilton logged 30 percent or more of his minutes against elite competition, with his CF% in those minutes being no lower than 53.3 percent (via PuckIQ). So the notion that he needs a defense-first defender like Slavin alongside him to handle defensive minutes isn’t exactly true.

Related: Devils Can Be Cup Contenders with Hughes & Hischier 1-2 Punch

Still, it can’t hurt to have a defensive defenseman paired with Hamilton. With their acquisition of Graves, that’s just how things happened to work out for the Devils. Graves’ on-ice results with Makar show he can handle a top-pair role. That duo had a CF% of 55.6 percent and xG% of 55.4 percent over the last two seasons. Hamilton is not far off in terms of the caliber defenseman Makar. And given how Graves complemented Makar, Hamilton shouldn’t have too many problems meshing with him.

Graves and Hamilton’s Styles Fit Each Other

Advanced stats aside, let’s talk about each defenseman’s makeup. At 6-foot-5, 220 pounds, Graves skates quite well for someone his size. While he’s not the puck-moving defenseman Slavin is, Graves is still an average puck-mover who doesn’t constantly rely on chipping the puck off the glass to relieve pressure in the defensive zone. And while he’s not an offensive defenseman by any stretch, he’s not afraid to shoot the puck. His shot selection will need to improve, but he did show an ability with the Avalanche to create rebound attempts.

Ryan Graves Colorado Avalanche
Ryan Graves as a member of the Colorado Avalanche (Photo by Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

As for Hamilton, he and Makar are pretty good comparables. Hamilton is a top-flight puck-moving defenseman who has a substantial positive impact offensively. Like Makar, Hamilton can lead the rush, whether it’s with the puck on his stick or making tape-to-tape passes to his forwards. He can play in all situations, handles tough defensive minutes well, and is particularly lethal on the power play. The only notable difference between Hamilton and Makar is that the former is 6-foot-6, 227 pounds, while Makar is 5-foot-11, 187 pounds. 

It seems like a no-brainer for Devils head coach Lindy Ruff to pair Hamilton and Graves together. Graves has shown he can handle playing alongside an elite defender like Makar while posting good results of his own. And while Graves isn’t Slavin by any stretch, Hamilton will benefit from having Graves’ defensive abilities alongside him. That should allow him to play to his offensive strengths as he did with the Hurricanes. Pair them together, and Ruff will have the top defensive unit he desperately needed during his first season as Devils head coach in 2020-21. 

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