Hurricanes Have Multiple Options to Explore with Dougie Hamilton

A major part of the Carolina Hurricanes’ turnaround over the past three seasons – going from being a perennial disappointment to becoming a team on the verge of legitimate Cup contender status – has been the seamless fit of trade acquisition Dougie Hamilton. He’s impacted the group in a multitude of ways from the blueline; he quarterbacks the first powerplay unit, he’s morphed into a top point-producing defenseman league-wide, and he’s become a favorite in both the locker room and in the hearts of the fan base.

There’s no understating what Hamilton’s presence means to the group in Raleigh, and that makes his pending unrestricted free agent status a potential regime-defining decision for the Hurricanes. He’ll be 28 years old when his new contract extension kicks in, so there are some obvious worries about a long-term deal for a guy who, quite realistically, is currently at the peak of his pro career. On the other hand, his on-ice impact will be nearly impossible to replace if he leaves, and the Canes would need to look elsewhere to replicate the production loss.

The good news is, the potential exploration of a sign-and-trade is intriguing because it’ll give the team a chance to acquire a legitimate asset or two in exchange for a guy that they aren’t planning on re-signing. Although losing Hamilton might be the worst-case scenario for the Hurricanes, knowing that they have the opportunity to acquire some assets for him gives the team a bit of leverage in negotiations and won’t force them into an overpayment. Re-signing him is an option that remains in the mix as well, so there surely won’t be any shortage of drama in this saga over the next month. Let’s take a look at all of the potential options.

The Case for Re-Signing Him

Re-signing Hamilton would probably be the best bet for a Hurricanes team that’s trying to stay competitive and entering their Cup-contending window. Over the past two seasons, Hamilton has posted 24 goals and 82 points over 102 games, which makes him one of the league’s best point-producing defensemen. He’s a major contributor to the Hurricanes’ power play, which ranked second-best in the NHL this past season.

When considering how important a player is to a team, you really have to consider two things. Can the team replace the player, or could they improve in other areas without the player? From a production standpoint, the answer is a definite no. Looking at the free-agent market, only Tyson Barrie is within the same realm as Hamilton in terms of offensive output, but he’s a step behind in every other regard and would be a disastrous fit in Carolina’s scheme. As far as internal options go, Jake Bean could take another step in his development, but he could also end up in Seattle via the expansion draft, and expecting him to fill Hamilton’s role is a major reach. Prospect-wise, Anttoni Honka is very promising offensively, but he’s a ways away.

Dougie Hamilton Carolina Hurricanes
Dougie Hamilton, Carolina Hurricanes (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

That makes the case for re-signing Hamilton pretty straightforward. He’s a top-tier offensive defenseman in this league, and his departure would create a massive hole in the Hurricanes’ lineup. He’s averaged 23 minutes of ice-time per game over the past two seasons, he controls play (58.7 Corsi For percentage in 2020-21), and the Hurricanes have outscored their opposition 252-162 with Hamilton on the ice since acquiring him three years ago. He’s been fantastic for the team and is a major key to their success.

The Case Against Re-Signing Him

Since Tom Dundon took over the Hurricanes, he and general manager Don Waddell have run the franchise like a business. Their formula is very non-traditional and has rubbed a lot of the hockey community the wrong way, with Dundon has been labeled “cheap” by the out-of-market media. The label is objectively false, as the team has spent right to the cap in each of the past two seasons and have not been shy in acquiring salary. Waddell and Dundon are smart spenders and have made it abundantly clear they won’t overpay a single penny if they don’t see the team getting full value out of it.

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That’s what makes the Hamilton negotiations very tricky. Hamilton, understandably, wants a max-term (eight-year) deal, as this will quite likely be his final chance to cash in on a big payday. The Hurricanes are obviously wary of that. The track record of high-end defensemen maintaining both their play and production into their mid-30s is not good, and paying a player for past production (instead of future) is what gets teams into trouble with bad contracts. While he likely has some good years left in him, the Hurricanes are surely skeptical about what his overall game will look like when he’s 34 and still making top-end money.

Dougie Hamilton, Carolina Hurricanes
Dougie Hamilton, Carolina Hurricanes (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

So as of today, negotiations are at a stalemate. Hurricanes beat writer Cory Lavalette said that he “has a hard seeing Carolina giving a lot of term to Hamilton.” In the grand scheme of things, I really have to agree with that sentiment. The biggest deficiencies in Hamilton’s game are his skating and his physicality, neither of which stand to improve as he continues to age. And while his current production is worth the money he’s asking for right now, it’s hard to imagine him maintaining his output five years down the road; especially as his physical capabilities begin to decline.

The Potential of a Sign-and-Trade

The most interesting aspect of the Hamilton saga is the rumored possibility of a sign-and-trade, specifically because of how rare they are. There are multiple benefits for another team to trade for him. First off, they would get Hamilton with an eighth year signed on his contract – which only the Hurricanes have the capability of doing. Free agency would max his contract out at seven years, and interested teams would surely be competing against other suitors. Working out a sign-and-trade with Carolina would assure a team that’d they land Hamilton on a max length eight-year deal, which gives the Hurricanes some leverage.

Dougie Hamilton Carolina Hurricanes
Dougie Hamilton, Carolina Hurricanes (Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)

The benefit for Carolina in this scenario is that it gives them the opportunity to add an asset (or more) in a trade for a player that they would otherwise lose for nothing when free agency opens on July 28th. Because of the circumstances, I can’t imagine the Hurricanes getting what would reasonably be considered fair value for Hamilton in any potential deal, but it becomes a matter of “take what you can get,” especially if they’re unable to work out an extension with the player.

The reason that a sign-and-trade is so intriguing is mainly due to the rarity of it happening. Teams that have a player of Hamilton’s caliber are usually intending on keeping that player with their core for the long term. So we’re left with quite an unprecedented situation, and it’s hard to gauge what a realistic return would be in a trade due to the lack of comparables in recent history. It’s sure to be a fascinating situation to follow, and the outcome could have huge ramifications – both good and bad – for the Hurricanes moving forward.

Potential Ramifications

Since the Hurricanes’ season ended with a disappointing second-round exit to the Tampa Bay Lightning, I’ve been of the mindset that the team is in what looks to be a lose-lose situation in regards to Hamilton. If they lose the player, suddenly they’ll have a massive hole in their lineup and will have a ton of work to do in free agency or the trade market to replace him.  On the other hand, re-signing him at his desired term could potentially handcuff the team with other contracts in the future, and it’s likely that the contract would become an anchor in the future, especially if Hamilton declines the way trends would suggest.

Allowing Hamilton and his agent the opportunity to explore the market and see what’s out there is a very smart move by the Hurricanes and allows them to get ahead of the situation. There’s always a possibility that Hamilton won’t like other offers and could circle back to negotiate with a Carolina team that’s been such a great fit for him over the past three years. Or, should he find a better fit (or offer) for himself that gives the club a chance to work out the trade and prepare themselves for finding some potential replacements – although – it doesn’t appear that a resolution here is imminent.

Dougie Hamilton, Carolina Hurricanes
Dougie Hamilton, Carolina Hurricanes (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Moving forward and looking at the big picture going into the 2021-22 season, the Hurricanes are in a very healthy spot cap-wise.  With Alexander Semin’s buyout finally off their payroll, the team is projected to have nearly $29.5 million in cap space, and while they do need new contracts for players like Andrei Svechnikov, Alex Nedeljkovic, Brock McGinn, and some others, they definitely figure to have the means to explore some trade options or free agents and improve their group – should they choose to do so. If the team ends up re-signing Hamilton, that would obviously eat up a big chunk of their payroll and limit their spending options, but it would keep their division-winning roster almost fully intact.

Regardless of what the team decides to do, Canes’ fans should have total faith that the team’s front office will do whatever it takes to ice another competitive group next season. The core of Svechnikov, Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, Martin Necas, Jaccob Slavin, and Brett Pesce remains under team control for the long haul, and they’ve now seemingly found their franchise goaltender in Nedeljkovic. This is a group that has been on the rise for three straight seasons, and there’s no doubt that whatever roster moves the team makes – or doesn’t make – will be done with the sole intent of bringing the Stanley Cup back to Raleigh.

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