The Devils made perhaps the biggest free agent splash in the franchise’s history this summer when they signed Dougie Hamilton, the top prize on the market and a top-five vote-getter for the 2021 Norris Trophy. With that acquisition came high expectations, as Hamilton’s 7-year, $9-million AAV made him the highest-paid Devil (tied with Subban for now) and one of the highest paid defensemen in the league. The Devils had lacked a cornerstone on defense for some time and Hamilton immediately changed that.
The Devils were piecing it together with what one might call a “top-pair-by-committee” approach over the past few years, with (being generous) fairly lackluster results. With Hamilton now in the fold, everything is able to run through him with other defenders acting as supporting pieces around the foundation that Hamilton provides. Hamilton plays 22 minutes a night to lead all Devils skaters in ATOI and has some of the best results on the team at 5v5 to show for it. Hamilton leads the Devils in 5v5 xGF% among defensemen, leads all skaters (50+ minutes) in 5v5 CF%, is second among all skaters in 5v5 shots/60, and is second among defensemen (behind Subban) in 5v5 points/60 (all stats via Natural Stat Trick).
A look at his xG impacts and RAPM show just how good Hamilton has been at even strength in particular for the Devils. Hamilton makes an enormous difference for the Devils on offense in particular, where his presence on the ice transforms the Devils from a mediocre outfit to a borderline dominant one. The Devils have struggled at times over the past few years with breakouts and initiating their transition offense. Hamilton is among the very best at turning play up the ice and his calm puck handling and high-level vision allow him to generate chances for the Devils frequently.
Hamilton hasn’t just helped in transition, his willingness to activate from the blueline and jump into plays is elite and it gives the Devils an element they have often been missing. He is a major weapon on offense for a team that needs as many as they can get. On top of that, his skating and reach allows him to recover like few others if he is caught out of position making his involvement in the offense from the blueline more than worth it even if it does lead to the occasional turnover.
I don’t even know that we’ve seen the best from Hamilton just yet, but his presence in the lineup makes the Devils feel like a different team immediately. With Hughes on the shelf for much of the early season, Hamilton’s presence has helped the Devils stay afloat by giving them another player who can consistently move the needle and tilt the ice when he is out there. Hamilton is getting paid big bucks to deliver that presence and I think, thus far, most would have to agree that he has delivered on that front.
This isn’t to say Hamilton has been perfect thus far. His power play prowess has been neutralized by the Devils staggering team-level ineptitude on the man advantage. This is a big element of Hamilton’s game and I don’t think we’ll really have seen the best from Hamilton until he can help getting this power play going. It seems that no matter how skilled the player, they just cannot put a dent in the unstoppable, er, stoppability of the Devils’ power play. Even Jack Hughes, a player seemingly built to create opportunities in these situations, has not been able to make this unit from the past couple seasons effective when he’s been on the ice.
I don’t want to let Hamilton off the hook here, since he was brought in, in part, to be effective on the power play, but John took an extensive look at this power play earlier this week and depth of the systemic issues with this unit cannot seem to be solved by one player. And to Hamilton’s credit, the on-ice numbers indicate that the Devils’ power play is only kind of bad with him on the ice and catastrophically bad with him off of it. The with/without heat maps of the power play for Hamilton below display the comic levels of ineptitude at work with him off the ice.
The Devils have been a team in search of difference-makers for a while, especially on defense, and it’s pretty clear that Dougie Hamilton definitely fits the profile of a difference-maker. That’s what the Devils paid for this summer and, to this point, it seems to be what they are getting. Hamilton’s combination of size, skating, vision, and skill made him a player coveted enough to be the top target in free agency this summer and I think, so far, it’s hard not to be happy with what we’ve seen. He plays the game in a way that exudes confidence, and his high level of skill allows him to create on offense and clean up messes on defense as well. To this point, you’d have to say that he’s been as advertised, and that’s a good thing for the Devils.