The New Jersey Devils have made splashes in the offseason under the current ownership led by Josh Harris and David Blitzer. Mostly in 2019. However, they have not spent a lot of money on free agents. This made sense as the New Jersey Devils have not been very good and have been rebuilding for much of the last six seasons. Still, this has led to an increasing complaint among the People Who Matter that ownership is not as interested in the Devils as they should be. This has changed today. On July 28, 2021, Dougie Hamilton entered this year’s free agency period as the best defenseman available. I am pleased to write that the New Jersey Devils were able to get his signature. As initially reported by Pierre LeBrun, the Devils signed Dougie Hamilton to a seven-year contract worth $63 million. Further terms of the deal may be disclosed in the future and this post will be updated if or when that happens. (And per Darren Dreger, there are other clauses being finalized/revealed.) (6:20 UPDATE: The Devils announced it on their website.)
I am beginning this post about ownership because this is a huge example of being willing to spend. They always were. The Devils acquired P.K. Subban’s gigantic contract, traded for Nikita Gusev and handed him $9 million right away, gave Wayne Simmonds $5 million for a season that ended up with him being traded to Buffalo, and made all kinds of off-ice improvements with additional staffers to a gigantic scoreboard at the Rock. Today’s signing is another big sign of . The Devils went out and committed a player to a $9 million cap hit; the largest I believe in franchise history since the salary cap was instituted. (If I am wrong, please correct me and I’ll correct the previous sentence.) Sure, Subban has a $9 million cap hit, but the Devils acquired it. This one was offered and accepted to the player. The Devils have spent $63 million on a free agent. Ownership has shown they can spend their money.
As far as the signing? It is great for multiple reasons.
CJ and Gerard discussed Dougie Hamilton at length throughout the past two months or so as a part of our preparation of today’s action. They called him “The Big Fish” as he was one of the top free agents to hit the market today. It is more than just the name. Hamilton has been an excellent defenseman with Boston, Calgary, and Carolina. The metrics used in CJ’s and Gerard’s post are the ones you would want to see from a top-pairing caliber defenseman. I’ll add some more from Natural Stat Trick. Last season, when he took a shift in Carolina in 5-on-5 play, Carolina took about 56% of the shooting attempts, 55.5% of the shots on net, about 56.7% of the scoring chances, and 57.7% of the high-danger scoring chances. In terms of expected goals, the Canes had a 56.5% xGF% with Hamilton on the ice and an actual GF% of 62.1%. These are better percentages than any other Carolina defenseman that played more than a handful of games last season. The against-rate stats for each of those were quite low too, so his presence was not just all in going forward. All this and Hamilton put up 6 goals (most among Canes defensemen) and 12 assists (2nd most) in 5-on-5. This is what an impact player is supposed to look like in 5-on-5. Dougie Hamilton was an impact player. And at age 28 (he turned 28 in June), he should be one for many years to come.
What about the power play? Hamilton had some of the best on-ice rates in power play situations in the entire league among all defensemen that had at least 100 minutes on the man advantage last season per Natural Stat Trick. When Hamilton was on the ice, Carolina attempted shots at a rate of over 120 per 60 minutes. That is higher than Adam Fox. Only Cale Makar yielded a higher rate last season. Shots on net happened. Scoring chances happened. As did goals. Individually, Hamilton finished tied for sixth in power play points with 18, and tied for eighth with 34 shots on net. The Devils have a plenty of power play skills on paper among their defensemen. Hamilton can absolutely make it better (and Ty Smith, please pay attention to Dougie Hamilton doing work on it).
What about the penalty kill? Hamilton did not play a lot of on this part of special teams for Carolina. He did play regularly given his 1:32 shorthanded ice time per game. But the first choice defensemen on the PK for Carolina were Brett Pesce, Jaccob Slavin, and Brady Skeji. Still, was it good for Carolina when Hamilton took a shorthanded shift? Yes, it was. His CA/60 rate was top-ten fewest for all defensemen with at least 50 shorthanded minutes last season per Natural Stat Trick. His SA/60 and xGA/60 rates were also well below the median, which are both good things to see. The Devils’ penalty kill last season flirted with history in terms of effectiveness. They would have to try to be worse than they were last season. Hamilton can help make it better in these situations as well.
In short: Hamilton played a lot for Carolina in 5-on-5 and power play situations and regularly on secondary unit in penalty kill situations. At least playing regularly in the three most common situations in hockey is what you want to see from a top-end defenseman. What is more is that he was excellent on the ice in those situations. It may be ideal to have a strong defensive partner with him, but he can help move things forward for the Devils both literally on the ice in the run of play and figuratively in terms of making them a better team.
Where would he play? The first pairing in New Jersey, of course. On the right side. Yes, Hamilton is a RHD. Another reason in of itself to appreciate this signing. While I thought P.K. Subban in 2021 was better than he was in 2019-20, this is a massive upgrade over Subban and Damon Severson leading that half of the blueline. I do not think it is controversial for me to write that the Devils absolutely needed an upgrade on defense. On paper, the Devils could be one of the stronger teams in the league at this position now that Hamilton is a Devil. Provided Ryan Graves fits in well, Ty Smith develops, and Alain Nasreddine gets better at coaching, the Devils’ defense may actually be decent at a minimum. It could even be, dare I suggest, good.
Not that I, a fan who remembers Brian Rafalski and Andy Greene quite well, think it makes a significant difference, but those who have been aching for more size on the blueline have to be pleased at this signing. Especially in light of the other moves made in the last week or so. Ryan Graves is quite large. Luke Hughes, the Devils’ top draft pick in 2021, is 6’2” and will fill out his frame in time. He joins a prospect pool of defensemen that feature the massive Kevin Bahl, Nikita Okhotiuk, and Michael Vukojevich. The depth defenseman the Devils just acquired, Christian Jaros, has a large 6’3” frame too. Dougie Hamilton, the newest Devil, is the largest of all except for Kevin Bahl. He is listed at 6’6” and 228 pounds. Complaints about a lack of size on defense shall be taken as seriously as Philadelphia goaltending.
Is it possible that the term could make this go sour in six years? It is. But this is the risk worth taking for a first-pairing defender today and someone who can play that role for several seasons to come. Defensemen like Dougie Hamilton, who has done as much as he accomplished on the ice, rarely make it to free agency before they turn 30. I understand the concerns CJ and Gerard raised about making such a signing. But given the big need of help on the blueline and the potentially larger need to show that the Devils are willing to spend on the open market, the potential benefits far outweigh the potential drawbacks. Dougie Hamilton playing behind The Big Deal, Jack Hughes, and helping him and his line create transitions and provide an attacking element from the back end could be glorious. Dougie Hamilton can help bolster the special teams that really need to be way better than whatever they were last season. Head coach Lindy Ruff’s preference for an activating defense should fit in smoothly for Dougie Hamilton and his game. Hamilton can at least be an example for Smith, Bahl, Okhotiuk, Walsh, Vukojevic, and eventually Luke Hughes to follow. If an under-30 defenseman like Hamilton is available; your team has the money, cap roome, and roster space to make it happen; and he is interested; then you make that move. Tom Fitzgerald made it and I am happy that he, Hamilton, and his agents made it happen.
I am happy to write that the New Jersey Devils did that. The $9 million cap hit is quite high, but the Devils are in the unique position to afford that. They went into today with over $30 million in cap space. They entered Wednesday roughly $11 million below the cap floor. They were one of the NHL teams that could make such an offer and not have it cause problems for their short or medium term future. Should the salary cap go up in the future, it will be less of a concern. Yes, the Devils now have two $9 million right-sided defensemen. That will not last; Subban’s contract is an expiring contract. And even with Hamilton’s signing and Bernier’s signing, the Devils still have over $18 million to re-sign their pending RFAs, bring in other players in free agency or trades, and even work on extensions (e.g. The Big Deal, Jack Hughes). And, again, top-end defensemen require to be paid like it. Seth Jones arguably was not that kind of defenseman last season; Hamilton was a lot closer to it if he somehow wasn’t (and I think he was). I can understand and respect the $9 million cap hit for Dougie Hamilton. This is the kind of player that can be worth that cap hit for multiple seasons. If it ends up being an overpayment, then I can live with that. As we have seen throughout the league in the last week or so, things can be done about that. But that’s a problem for five to seven seasons from now. For 2021-22, I am confident this will be worth every penny.
Ownership stepped up with the money. Tom Fitzgerald brought in a marquee free agent. The Devils became a better team today. I am very happy with this signing. I welcome Dougie Hamilton to the New Jersey Devils organization and I wish him the best.
I am a big fan of the signing. I am happy it was completed today. Now I want to know what you think. What do you think of Dougie Hamilton now being a member of the New Jersey Devils? What do you think of his contract? What do you expect from Hamilton? If you are Tom Fitzgerald, what else do you do now that Hamilton is locked up? Are you as excited as I am? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Dougie Hamilton in the comments. Thank you for reading.