Devils Need a Healthy Hamilton for the 2022-23 Season

Dougie Hamilton was the New Jersey Devils’ marquee free-agent signing last summer. His first season in New Jersey got off to a strong start, but injuries began to mount and took their toll on the then-28-year-old defenseman after he broke his jaw in a game against the Washington Capitals on Jan. 2. Not only did he miss weeks recovering from that injury, but he also dealt with a broken toe that nagged him through the rest of 2021-22. 

Though Hamilton’s first season with the Devils didn’t go as many hoped, there was still some good to come out of it. With a long offseason to heal up, the Devils should benefit from a healthy Hamilton in 2022-23, which they will need to have success in the Metropolitan Division.

Hamilton Before & After the Broken Jaw

Before suffering a broken jaw, Hamilton had 20 points in his first 29 games with the Devils and looked like the top-pair defenseman he was with the Carolina Hurricanes in his previous three seasons. Had he maintained that pace and played 82 games, he would’ve finished with 57 points, which would’ve led all Devils defensemen. 

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Aside from his counting totals, his underlying numbers were also quite impressive. Through his first 20 games, Hamilton posted a Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 55.92 percent and an expected goals percentage (xG%) of 54.49 percent. He was one of the team’s best shot creators through his first 20 games, which is one of his best attributes. He averaged the second most shots on goal per 60 minutes at five-on-five to Jesper Bratt and was averaging 1.89 points per 60 minutes. 

However, Hamilton’s play started to head south a bit after game 20. His five-on-five numbers sank, and he wasn’t creating as many shots as he was through his first 20 games. He went into the Christmas break in a bit of a slump, but that was more likely just part of the typical ups and downs a player goes through every season. Most players don’t consistently dominate for all 82 games unless you’re Connor McDavid. 

But then occurred the broken jaw on Jan. 2 in the game against the Capitals — Hamilton’s 30th game of the season. He’d miss close to eight weeks after breaking his jaw, but when he did return, he got off to a pretty impressive start. His xG% shot up close to 60 percent in his first ten games back, but that didn’t last too long.

Dougie Hamilton, New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils defenseman Dougie Hamilton (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Little did we know at the time that Hamilton was also dealing with a broken toe. Eventually, the injuries caught up to him, as his xG% cratered in games 41-50 to below 45 percent before climbing back above 51 percent for the final 12 games of the season. 

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Even though his on-ice results fluctuated, Hamilton’s production pre-injury never returned, as he finished with only ten points across his final 32 games. His five-on-five shot creation fell by a noticeable clip, and he went from averaging 1.44 points per 60 pre-injury to 0.77 post-injury. In all, a tough season for him. But as coach Lindy Ruff alluded to in an interview with Devils reporter Amanda Stein late last week, the injuries essentially made it a tale of two seasons for Hamilton:  

“I mean, we saw the pre-injury and the post-injury, and it really speaks for itself. You know, we need a healthy Dougie. And I think you know being limited, breaking the jaw, having a mask on, trying to play catch up after that, I think he understands he felt like the pre and the post was a big difference. And he’s spending a lot of time getting ready for the season and wants to be that guy that we saw before the injury.”

Hamilton Should Also Benefit From an Improved Power Play

The good news about Hamilton’s first season with the Devils is that for his first 30 games, especially his first 20, he looked like the top-pair defenseman that he was with the Hurricanes. While he did have some brief stretches of solid play after his injuries, it was certainly not like his performance before getting hurt. 

There’s a pretty strong argument for him to bounce back at five-on-five if healthy, but that’s not the only game state where Hamilton should have a better year. Last season was one of his worst on the power play since he entered the NHL nearly a decade ago, though that was not all injury-related. Sure, him not being 100 percent probably didn’t help. But the team’s struggles on the man advantage were also likely a significant contributing factor. 

Dougie Hamilton, New Jersey Devils
Dougie Hamilton, New Jersey Devils (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The Devils’ power play was among the worst in the NHL last season. They ranked in the bottom five in shot quantity and quality generated per 60 minutes and had a success rate of just 15.56 percent, ranked 28th in the league. That should change in 2022-23, with the Devils having hired Andrew Brunette as an assistant coach to oversee the power play. He was a Jack Adams finalist last season and was in charge of the Florida Panthers’ power play before taking over as the interim head coach after Joel Quenneville had to resign following the NHL’s findings from the Kyle Beach investigation. 

Though Brunette was the Panthers’ head coach for all but seven games in 2021-22, it’s safe to say it was still his power play system. In his three seasons as a coach with the Panthers, their power play never finished with a success rate below 20 percent. They also finished in the top half of the NHL in shot quantity and quality generated. 

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Not only will this be welcomed news for the Devils, but Hamilton should benefit the most from the players who will get significant power-play minutes. In his first season with the Devils, Hamilton’s power-play rates fell across the board. It was the first time in his career he averaged less than ten shots on goal per 60 minutes. It was also the first time he averaged less than 30 shot attempts per 60 minutes since the 2016-17 season when he was with the Calgary Flames. 

That would be a cause for concern in most cases. But when someone like Hamilton posts as consistently strong power-play results as he has over the last four to five years, it’s on the system more than the player. With him returning to health and a new system in place for the upcoming season, I’d expect his power-play numbers to improve as well.

A Healthy Hamilton & a Re-Built Blue Line

From the moment the Devils signed Hamilton, he always was going to be the go-to guy on their blue line. That won’t change in 2022-23, but he should have more support. Jonas Siegenthaler had a breakout year a season ago as one of the best defensive defensemen in the NHL, so he should be the ideal defense partner for Hamilton. 

Jonas Siegenthaler New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils defenseman Jonas Siegenthaler (Photo by Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Devils will also have a couple of new faces on the blue line in Brendan Smith, who they signed in free agency, and John Marino, who they acquired in a trade from the Pittsburgh Penguins. They will have different roles than Hamilton, but they can also help take on some defensive responsibility, which could free up Hamilton some more offensively. That’s especially true of Marino, who played a top-four role in Pittsburgh and can log more difficult minutes if needed. 

This, of course, is all dependent on Hamilton being healthy. But assuming there are no nagging issues from his broken toe and especially his broken jaw, he should bounce back in 2022-23. And the Devils need him to be healthy and productive. If they want to finally make some noise in a Metropolitan Division that got a bit weaker this summer, having Hamilton all systems go is a must for their chances at success this coming season. 

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