The New Jersey Devils did it. They landed this year’s prized free agent in Dougie Hamilton, signing him to a seven-year deal worth a total of $63 million. He spent the past three seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes and finished with 40 points in 52 games in 2020-21 — a 63-point pace over 82 games.
Overhauling the team’s defense was a priority for Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald this offseason. He got the ball rolling by acquiring Ryan Graves from the Colorado Avalanche before the expansion draft. Now with Hamilton in the mix, their blue line will have a drastically different look next season. And one for the better, as Hamilton is an ideal fit for how the Devils want to play. What is it about his game that makes him a perfect match for the team as they look to take a big step forward in their rebuild? Let’s find out.
Hamilton an Elite All-Around Defender
When it comes to Hamilton, the first thing to note is his offensive ability. He’s averaged almost 54 points per 82 games over the last three seasons and is constantly a scoring threat in the offensive zone. Since the start of the 2018-19 campaign, his even-strength offense has been worth an expected goals above replacement (xGAR) of 43.3. That ranks first in the NHL among defensemen, with Shea Theodore being next at 36.3. xGAR is a better tool for measuring a defenseman’s impact because it places less emphasis on finishing, so Hamilton has been an absolute tank offensively.
When Hamilton is on the ice, his team always seems to have control of the puck. He had a Corsi percentage (CF%) of 57.25 percent and an expected goals percentage of 57.69 percent over the last three seasons with the Hurricanes. So they were constantly out-attempting and out-chancing their opponents with Hamilton at five-on-five.
There have been some questions about Hamilton’s defensive game over the years. But I’m not sure how much those hold up. The Hurricanes were not giving Hamilton soft minutes at five-on-five, and far from it. He played against elite competition quite a bit and fared very well in those minutes (via PuckIQ):
|Season||Percent of Ice Time vs. Elite Competition||CF%|
It’s pretty clear Hamilton is a force at five-on-five, but he’s also had good to excellent results on special teams. Though he’s not an elite penalty-killer, he was a decent shot and chance suppressor for the Hurricanes when down a man. He’ll likely get time there for the Devils, too, even if it’s only on the second unit.
But where Hamilton’s biggest strength lies on special teams is the power play. It’s not a stretch to say that he’s one of the best power play quarterbacks in the NHL. He had an overwhelmingly strong positive impact on the man advantage, something the Devils should benefit from greatly after their power play struggles in 2020-21. Combine that with Hamilton’s overwhelmingly strong positive impact at even strength, and you have an elite defenseman:
If there was any concern about Hamilton’s defensive game, those seem to be minor. He might not be an elite shutdown defender, but he’s still had a positive impact, as shown in the RAPM chart above (xGA/60, CA/60). So he’s going to play first-pair minutes against opponents’ top lines, something the Devils haven’t had on the right side of their blue line in many years.
Another component of Hamilton’s game the Devils should benefit from is his ability to make things happen when he gains the offensive zone with puck possession. In his previous three seasons before 2020-21, he ranked in the 100th percentile in individual shots when in the offensive zone. And he managed to gain the offensive zone with puck possession more often than not:
Hamilton has always been a polarizing defenseman, with many people questioning how good he actually is. The truth is he’s an elite offensive defenseman who handles himself well defensively and has a significant positive impact on the power play. He’s miles better than Seth Jones, who the Chicago Blackhawks signed to a mega extension. And he’ll be making $500,000 less per year than Jones for the next seven years. So the Devils will get their money’s worth.
Hamilton a Perfect Fit in More Ways Than One
Hamilton is in the upper echelon of NHL defensemen. That’s clearly why the Devils signed him, but he’s also a perfect fit for how they want to play under head coach Lindy Ruff. In his first season as coach in 2020-21, it’s pretty clear how Ruff wanted the team to play. Unlike his predecessor John Hynes, he implemented an up-tempo, rush-based system similar to the one he had as the Dallas Stars head coach.
The issue with that kind of system is you need puck-moving defensemen to execute it properly. The Devils had a couple that found success with Ruff last season in Ty Smith and Damon Severson, and even P.K. Subban found some new life. But that’s only half a blue line, hence why Fitzgerald made it a priority this offseason.
Though Graves is more of a defensive defenseman, he’s a decent enough puck-mover to find success in Ruff’s system. Hamilton, on the other hand, should thrive tremendously in it. He’s great at transitioning the puck up the ice, whether it’s on his own stick or making breakout passes to forwards. He’s not afraid to jump in on the rush either, which should work out well in Ruff’s system. A good comparison would be John Klingberg, whose best years with the Stars came under Ruff. It’s not a stretch to think Hamilton will have similar or even better results than Klingberg did in Dallas.
As for who Hamilton’s defense partner could be, there are a couple of fits. Graves played a bit alongside Cale Makar with the Colorado Avalanche, so he has some experience playing with an elite defender. Graves is 6-foot-5, 220 pounds, while Hamilton is 6-foot-6, 227 pounds, so that would make for a massive first-pairing but one with mobility. Teams would probably have a tough time breaking through a unit with that kind of size, mobility and defensive prowess.
The other option would be to play Smith, who had a good but not great rookie season in 2020-21, alongside Hamilton. He’s just 21 years old and projects to be a high-end puck-moving defender down the road. But it might be too soon to pencil him into top-pair minutes. The more likely scenario sees him paired with Severson once again. The two had success together in 2020-21 and would make for a formidable second pair. Add Subban and Jonas Siegenthaler, who the Devils acquired at this year’s trade deadline, and here’s what the defense pairs could look like:
- Graves – Hamilton
- Smith – Severson
- Siegenthaler – Subban
- X – Christian Jaros
That is a drastically different look than last season and is much closer to a blue line that can help the Devils be much more competitive. It’s all because of what Hamilton brings as a player, as he can play in all situations and does a bit of everything at a high level. And because there are a variety of ways Ruff can utilize him, it makes him an ideal fit for the team.
Devils Will Get What They Paid For
Finally, there’s Hamilton’s contract. There’s always risk in signing a 28-year-old free agent to a max seven-year deal. It’s no different with Hamilton, but I wouldn’t be too concerned. For starters, he’s showing no signs of decline and is still at the top of his game. Plus, it’s usually second-tier free agents whose deals end up aging poorly (Milan Lucic, Andrew Ladd, to name a couple), not elite players such as Hamilton.
And for what it’s worth, Dom Luszczyszyn’s model still has Hamilton as an elite defender in the seventh year of his deal. That may be a stretch, but it’s not unreasonable to think he could still be a top-four blueliner by the time his contract is coming to an end.
All in all, the Devils’ signing of Hamilton is a complete game-changer. They haven’t had a defenseman of his caliber in their lineup since Brian Rafalski, which was many moons ago. The Devils still have some work to do as far as adding a scorer or two, but Fitzgerald got the job done on defense. They should have one of the better defensive groups in the Metropolitan Division next season. And with Jonathan Bernier coming in as a 1B to Mackenzie Blackwood, opponents should find the back of the net less often than they did in 2020-21.
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Alex Chauvancy is a New Jersey Devils writer for The Hockey Writers who has a penchant for advanced stats, prospects, signings and trades. He previously wrote for Devils Army Blog, a New Jersey Devils fan blog, from 2015-2017