The Devils are a team badly in need of a true cornerstone on defense. The Devils have a few capable NHLers and some prospects with some upside, but something absent from their group is a player they can truly lean on to be a consistent difference-maker on the blue line. It is possible that one could be coming via the draft this summer, but given where the team is at, they need more stability right now than an 18-year-old is likely to be able to deliver next year or even within the next few. No, if the Devils want to upgrade their defensive unit from an obvious weakness to something resembling a strength, they are going to need a player who moves the needle in a big way quickly. A quick survey of the Devils’ system on D will reveal that the only way that is likely to occur is through a free agent signing or a blockbuster trade.
How far exactly the Devils are from contention is a difficult question to figure at this point. There are certainly signs that point in the right direction (a respectable 5v5 xGF% in spite of a ton of youth, the progress of some of their young players, a seemingly fixable goaltending situation that dragged down results) but it’s also hard to argue a team that just finished 29th in the league is on the cusp of something magical. Put short, the Devils may have things they can build on, but they also have serious work to do this summer if they hope to make a leap up the standings and into the playoff conversation. Aside from solidifying the situation in net, how can the Devils improve things quickly?
Enter perhaps the most coveted player in this year’s free agency class: Dougie Hamilton. If there were ever a free agent who can solve a big problem on defense for a team in a hurry, it’s Hamilton. Leaving aside all of the reasons to be skeptical of the Devils chances to woo Hamilton (which you can surmise are legion from me titling this piece “Pipe Dream Friday”), let’s just get into why Fitzgerald should ready his canvas bag with green dollar sign on it and prepare his best pitch deck for if he gets the opportunity to meet with Dougie this offseason. To sum it up, Hamilton is extremely good at the sport of hockey at the position where the Devils are badly in need of a person with such qualities.
Starting high-level, Hamilton has bounced between a few different organizations over his NHL run but has settled in as one of the NHL’s very best defensemen in his past five seasons in Carolina and Calgary. He is second among defensemen in goals over that five-year stretch (first in even-strength goals) and 13th in total points. Among the 219 players with at least 1000 minutes over the past three season, he leads the entire league in 5v5 CF% and xGF%, and ranks 11th in GF% with a 5v5 goal differential of +38 over that span. He has received Norris votes in each of the past four seasons and seems poised to perhaps be a trophy finalist this season as the standout on a juggernaut Carolina defense.
Pushing past the surface level stats, the more advanced metrics don’t like him any less. A quick look at his player card from Evolving Hockey or his xG impact maps from HockeyViz tell the story: Hamilton is an absolutely dominant 5v5 presence. He is also a highly effective power play presence and a decent (if unspectacular) penalty killer to go along with it. He’s about as close to the total package from an NHL defender as you’re likely to get.
It is for exactly these reasons that the Devils signing him is a dream scenario (and also highly unlikely). He would instantly remake their defense by giving them a bona fide #1 cornerstone for their group and have he second-order effect of pushing everyone else down into roles better suited for them. For example, if the Devils could run Ty Smith-Damon Severson as a second pairing instead of a first, that would have big implications for how well the team can compete on a nightly basis.
The problem for the Devils is convincing a player in his prime to join a team that has, at best, a very risky five-year outlook for a player figuring out where to set up shop for the back side of his best years in the league. If he does decide to test the market in free agency, which is by no means a guarantee, he will (or at least should) be getting calls from 31 other teams. That doesn’t mean the Devils should not give it their best shot when he does hit the market.
[Disclaimer: now is where I try to talk myself into this not being a complete impossibility.] I think there are at least a few things that give the Devils a purely hypothetical boost with Hamilton. Based on his career track record, he probably is not looking for a place where he’d be under the microscope but his apparent love of museums and culture could make a place like the New York metropolitan area attractive. A spot in New Jersey gives you the proximity to the cultural hub without the New York tabloid interest, so... best of both worlds? The Devils also have a lot of this weaponizable cap space I’m always hearing about and if you’re not going to use it to chuck $9M+ AAV contract offers at elite defenders, then what exactly is the point, you know? The Evolving Hockey contract predictor puts Hamilton’s next contract at 7 years, $8.5M per year, and there aren’t many teams who can readily accommodate that type of scratch with the current conditions of a flat cap. If the Devils can float a really strong dollar offer, they might at least be able to get him and his agent listening, which is a huge part of the battle. If you can then convince him that a fresh coat of paint, a couple depth adds, and a nice new Dougie Hamilton makes the Devils’ plucky young bunch a major player in the league for most of the 2020s, well, maybe you’ve got a chance.
Again, do I consider the Devils signing Hamilton at all likely? No. Tom Fitzgerald should be throwing the kitchen sink at him if he does end up reaching the market, though. There are very few players who I think could instantly shift the Devils trajectory right now, but I think I’d have to consider Hamilton one of them.