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Dougie Hamilton, Shot Machine - And By Design of the New Jersey Devils

Dougie Hamilton was the overtime hero yesterday in the 3-2 win over St. Louis by scoring on his sixth shooting attempt of the day. Hamilton has been firing pucks all season long, even after he returned from injury. And part of it is because of how the Devils play in 5-on-5 hockey. Read on to find out more.

St. Louis Blues v New Jersey Devils
Two? Try 6. As in, Hamilton took six shooting attempts in this game. The last one was the most important.
Photo by Christopher Pasatieri/NHLI via Getty Images

Dougie Hamilton was the overtime hero yesterday at the Rock. In the first post-regulation game for the New Jersey Devils since January 2, a 4-3 OT win in Washington, Pavel Zacha won a puck a found Hamilton ahead of Robert Thomas coming down the middle of the ice. Hamilton took the pass, went right, and beat Ville Husso for the game winner. The Devils won 3-2 and the People Who Matter were pleased.

The game overall from Hamilton was typical from what he has provided offensively all season. Hamilton shoots the puck a lot. Since his return to the Devils, he has had no fewer than six shooting attempts in all situations with at least two shots per game. He even hit double digits in attempts twice in his six games back from injury: February 24 in Pittsburgh with 10 and March 1 in Columbus with 13.

What is more astounding is that even with his injury that caused him to miss nearly all of January and most of February’s games, Hamilton is still 52nd in the NHL among all skaters in total shooting attempts in 5-on-5 situations with 192. OK, that is not so impressive on its face. Until I point out that 192 attempts in 36 games with ice time means his per-60 rate of shot attempts is 19.05. That is the ninth highest in the league prior to last night’s games after filtering out players with fewer than 100 minutes played in 5-on-5. That is a higher rate of shooting attempts than Alex Ovechkin, Vladimir Tarasenko, Nikita Kucherov, and Darnell Nurse (the defensemen with the most attempts in 5-on-5 with 270 - why is Nurse attempting more shots than McDavid and Draisaitl, I couldn’t tell you) among others. Put Hamilton on the ice and he will fire away from anywhere.

Of course, this is not just a feature of what Dougie Hamilton has brought to the Devils and returned to the Devils after injury. A lot of the Devils defensemen have been enthusiastic to shoot the puck. This is by design of the New Jersey Devils coaching staff. This is what head coach Lindy Ruff and the staff wants to see. The main attacking play in 5-on-5 for the Devils to go high-low; where forwards work the puck down low to win possession and pass it back to an open man at the point. Defensemen have the green light to pinch, move in, or fire from distance as they see fit. Additionally, defensemen are also allowed to join rush plays if an opportunity presents itself. Hamilton has always been a shooter. He has at least 180 attempts in 5-on-5 hockey in every season of his career since his second season with Boston. The Devils’ system emphasizes this part of Hamilton’s game - as well as asks other defensemen on the team to do so. If it feels like Hamilton shoots the puck a lot - perhaps even too much - then your feeling is correct. It is intentional.

However, I would be remiss to point out that most of Hamilton’s goals were not from distance this season. I will note that yesterday’s goal was in a 3-on-3 situation and he was 1,000% correct to blow past Thomas on the play. That is a bit of a special situation. The other eight this season were not long strikes from the point. They were not bombs clapped from the blue. Yet, Hamilton and the other Devils defensemen take a lot of those shots anyway. How effective have they been? Let us take a closer look.

The Top 10 Devils Shooters So Far This Season

Thanks to Natural Stat Trick’s individual data in 5-on-5 (Why 5-on-5? So players like Hamilton who have not been kept on a main power play unit are not punished), we can find out who has attempted to shoot the puck the most, who has the most shots on net, what expected goals value those attempts have yielded, how many scoring and high danger scoring chances they have, and how many goals they have scored. With some arithmetic, we can even figure out how many times their attempts have been blocked and missed the net; as well as the low and medium danger shots they have taken. (Note: Medium danger chances are still scoring chances. Don’t discount the medium danger chances!) All of that information would be useful to answer a larger question: How effective are the most prolific Devils with their shots? With that stated, as of the evening of March 6, here are the top ten Devils by shots attempted (a.k.a. Corsi For, CF) in 5-on-5 play.

Top 10 Devils in shot attempts in 5-on-5 hockey so far this season
Top 10 Devils in shot attempts in 5-on-5 hockey so far this season
Natural Stat Trick as of March 06, 2022

(Legend: GP = Games Played, CF = Corsi or shot attempts for, SOG = shots on goal, LDCF = low danger attempts, MDCF = medium danger attempts, HDCF = high danger attempts, xG = expected goals, Sh% = shooting percentage.)

I’ve highlighted the defensemen to make a few points:

  • The Devils coaches really encourage the defensemen to get involved on offense. This is how P.K Subban, Ryan Graves, Damon Severson, and Jonas Siegenthaler have had more attempts at goal than almost all of the forwards. It was not until recently that Jesper Bratt surpassed Severson in attempts. And Jack Hughes’ injury kept his count lower. Even so, no Devil matched an injured Hamilton in attempts except for Subban and Graves.
  • I repeat: P.K. Subban and Ryan Graves attempted more shots than Bratt, Hughes, Hischier, etc. Only Bratt shot more pucks than Severson did this season. Only Bratt and Hughes have shot more pucks than Jonas Siegenthaler this season.
  • You can see that the attempts by defensemen have led to more blocks and missed shots than the forwards on the list. This is a result from all of those attempts from distance. While Ruff & Co. allow defensemen to pinch in and get involved, more often than not, they get the puck at the point and fire away when they see a lane. These shots from over 40 feet from the net are more likely to get blocked by opponents and/or miss the net as there could be more traffic along the way than a shot from the faceoff circles or closer to the net. This is also why some defend these shots in terms of hoping for a tip-in or a rebound or something. Great in theory, but not so great in practice. To quote Jack Han from his Hockey Tactics 2022: The Playbook e-book, it’s “high-risk, low-reward.” As you see with the other stats like xG, shooting percentage, or just plain goals scored.
  • That reasoning helps explain why the five defensemen are hovering around 50% or worse in terms of shots on net over shots attempted. The forwards are not amazing outside of Bratt, but at least a there is a better than 1 out of 2 chance their shots are on target. Not so much for Subban, Graves, or Siegenthaler. More often than not, their attempts are not actual shots on goal.
  • Also because of the distance and location of most of those attempts, most of those attempts are classified at Natural Stat Trick as low danger shots. Medium and high danger shots are combined for scoring chances and high-danger chances alone are, well, the most dangerous. The definitions Natural Stat Trick uses for each are here; check out “Scoring chances” for more details. The main point is that the majority of the attempts from defensemen - Hamilton included - are not likely to go in on their own because of how many of them are low danger attempts. And with just 8 to 14 assists among the defensemen, they often do not create goals either.
  • The expected goals value is a measure of how valuable the shot attempts a player is making on the ice. Per the model at Natural Stat Trick, you can see that the defensemen’s attempts do not yield a very high xG value at all. Even Hamilton’s attempts suggest that he would have 5 or 6 goals. And he has 6. The five defensemen on this list are within the model’s projection. The issue is that it does not project many goals. Even Tomas Tatar has a higher xG mark than all five defensemen despite attempting at least 18 fewer attempts than them.

From an outsider perspective, one should question why Hamilton, Subban, Graves, Severson, and Siegenthaler attempt as many shots as they do. The majority are low danger shots, their expected goals are low, their actual goals are low, and the forwards have a better rate of getting their attempts on net as their position has them in a generally better location to shoot. It seems inefficient to have the team’s top scorer be out-attempted by three defensemen and the team’s most skilled player be out-attempted by four. Even Tatar has been more effective with his shooting this season. (And this top ten leaves out Zacha, Hischier, and Johnsson, with similar results.) So why?

Part of it is because the attempts are possible from there. Sometimes in hockey (and other sports), you have to take what the defense gives you. The high-low strategy creates space from the points for players to make a play. In a sport where a second can happen, I can understand a decision to just fire away if they see the hint of a lane to the net. That is another factor: the coaches’ system wants to create this amount of volume. If it pulls the defense out, then more space can open up for the forwards down low. Or the long shot could create a bounce or an opportunity for a forward to poach a stronger shot on net.

Another part of it is the personnel. OK, Graves and Siegenthaler are far from offensive-minded defensemen; but this is also why both have produced as much as they have. While not so effective for Subban, these results help justify Hamilton’s and Severson’s roles and numbers so far.

However, one must ask this question differently. How does this compare with other teams in the league? Sure, Hamilton fires a ton of pucks as do the rest of the Devils’ blueline. But the most frequent attempters in the league include defensemen from other teams. Players such as Nurse, Roman Josi, Jacob Trouba, Thomas Chabot, Zach Werenski, and Cale Makar. Perhaps the Devils are not the only team with defenders firing as much as they do. Rather than do a league-wide comparison, let us look at one of the teams with a defenseman with over 200 attempts made in 5-on-5 this season.

A Point of Comparison - Colorado

Coincidentally, the Devils’ next opponent is the Colorado Avalanche. They are among the highest scoring teams in the league in 5-on-5 (138) and in all situations (219). The stunningly talented and dynamic Cale Makar is one of their most frequent shooters on this high-power offensive squad. Do their other defensemen bomb away a lot of attempts? Let us look at their top ten skaters by shooting attempts:

Top 10 Avalanche in shot attempts in 5-on-5 hockey so far this season
Top 10 Avalanche in shot attempts in 5-on-5 hockey so far this season
Data from Natural Stat Trick as of March 06, 2022

While Makar and Nathan MacKinnon are battling for first on this list, the Avalanche defensemen are not as prolific as the Devils’ defensemen are on their team’s list. Sure, four defenders make up the top ten. Only Makar is among the team’s top producers - both of attempts and production. In a way, this is more of what you would want to see. The Avalanche as a whole are attempting more shots. Mikko Rantanen would be just behind Hamilton on the Devils’ list and he is just fourth on Colorado in attempts. Plus, the top ten attempters for the Avs are crushing the expected goals model at Natural Stat Trick. Especially Andrew Burakovsky.

However, you do see some similarities between the Avs defenders and the Devils defenders when one takes a closer look at these numbers. As much as Makar has fired the puck this season, most of his attempts are low danger attempts and less than half of them are even shots on net. Despite his skating, mobility, and ability to read attacks to join in or not, most of his attempts are from distance. A good percentage of them are getting stuffed by opponents. Even with nine goals to his name in 5-on-5, it is enough to wonder why Makar attempts to shoot as much as he does when he has teammates taking a lot of shots, much more accurate shots (Burakovsky excepted), and converting more of them.

Two of the other defensemen fall into a similar profile albeit with fewer attempts made than Devils. Erik Johnson’s 169 attempts would place him fourth on the Devils. Like the other defensemen, a notable fraction of them get blocked and fewer than half even make it to the net. Also, most of those attempts are low danger shots. That has yielded a low xG. Johnson has beaten it, but by just a goal for a total of four. Samuel Girard has an even worse ratio of shots on net to attempts on net and a similar look when it comes to danger and getting blocked. Like Johnson, he has a low xG and just four goals to show for it - and four goals beats the model.

The exception here is Devon Toews. He has had a remarkably high number of his attempts become shots on target. Third best on this Avs’ list and the best among all defensemen from both teams. Even though most of Toews’ shots were at low danger, he has managed to find the net more often than the opposition or the glass or boards by the net. I question whether Toews is particularly skilled at this. Or particularly judicious when it comes to shooting the puck at all. It has not mattered much from an xG point of view, but his attempts are not as wasteful as the other eight defensemen between both team’s lists.

Still, you can see some similarities with between the 20-win Devils and the 40-win Avalanche. Both teams have defensemen who fire a lot of pucks. Most of those shot attempts by defensemen do not hit the net, they are more likely to be blocked compared to most of their respective forwards, and a lot of them are low danger chances. They yield low expected goal values and fewer actual goals. I figure why the Colorado defensemen shoot the puck as much as they do are for most of the same reasons the Devils defenders do. They’re open. They get the puck. They are in space to make a play, so they decide to shoot on sight.

However, you can see the big difference is that the Colorado forwards - their best forwards - have taken more attempts than all of them except for Makar. This is not just because they are talented. They are, but I think the scheme has something to do with it. Going back to Han’s e-book, the Avalanche tend to play something called a two-three on offense in 5-on-5. Basically, two forwards are down low and a third forward, usually MacKinnon, is up high in the zone with the two defensemen. What makes this so dangerous, per Han, is that defenses often have to decide to focus on MacKinnon or focus on Makar. And both are skilled and intelligent enough to make teams pay for making the wrong choice. Teams that tend to overload on a puck carrier - New Jersey - could have real problems with this. But this approach likely explains why MacKinnon and Makar have so many shooting attempts. Combined with the general skillsets to read and make plays on the puck, others with them - Kadri, Rantanen, Landeskog, etc. - can also take a lot of attempts, which are often more dangerous and likely to score. Given their goal totals in 5-on-5 this season, it works.

Takeaways

Let me go back to Dougie. Yes, he shoots the puck a lot. He is one of the most prolific shot attempters in the league. This is partially because this is what Dougie Hamilton has done in his career and partially because this is what the Devils want him to do. More than that, the Devils want the other defensmen on the team to do the same thing and so Subban, Graves, Severson, and Siegenthaler have followed suit.

Is it extraordinary? It seems so. I mean, the Devils’ top scorer has fewer shot attempts than P.K. Subban in 5-on-5. But other teams do have defensemen who seemingly fire at will and often too. New Jersey has Hamilton just as Colorado has Makar. It remains to be seen if the Devils are extraordinary as a team as this post just has a comparison to one team. However, the Avalanche’s attack in 5-on-5 is different from New Jersey’s general strategy. While Makar flings a lot of rubber and hopes to hit the net half the time too, he is also involved at creating opportunities for others. This yields more attempts for their forwards, at least the ones with Makar, and helps facilitate more offense. Which can and has yielded more goals even with their defensemen shooting as inefficiently as they are.

This may be great to know, but how can this help the Devils? Is it as simple as telling their defensemen to stop firing the puck so much? Well, sort of. I do not think the Devils should tell Hamilton to shoot a whole lot less or change their system entirely. And Severson, for all of his issues, has put over half his attempts on net too. I think the coaches should tell Subban, Graves, and Siegenthaler to look for passes first instead of just firing away when they do get the puck at the points in 5-on-5. The overall system does not need to change - good luck changing one 52 games into a season - and this could help Devils’ offense more efficient. It could even get some forwards who have not been all that productive get going on that front. After all, you cannot score without attempting a shot and we know that Graves, Subban, and Siegenthaler really are not scoring themselves or creating a lot of goals. Even if you think the Devils offense is fine as-is, imagine if Bratt or Hughes or the other forwards were able to fire more pucks. There could be even more shots. More scoring opportunities. More chances. More goals.

If much of this post seems familiar, then that it is because it is. It is a point I did make earlier in the season. And it is worth repeating now. This is true months into this season after 50-plus games and recently with Hamilton back after a six-week absence. He did not change from the broken jaw. Dougie Hamilton is a shot machine for better and for worse. The Devils’ system of offense in 5-on-5 facilitates a player like Hamilton with his skills. The issue is that the system also facilitates players to play like they are Hamilton when they are not. I think it can be adjusted. We shall see if the coaches do so. Given that they have not made this adjustment yet whilst letting Subban, Graves, and Siegenthaler jack up long shots with little chance of doing anything for over 50 games, I am not holding my breath. At least Dougie Hamilton knows when to jump up on a play and can finish it. Just ask Ville Husso and Robert Thomas.

What do you make of Dougie Hamilton’s shooting this season? What of the other defensemen? What changes would you make if you were the coaches of the Devils? Are the Avalanche a good point of comparison and, if not, who would you like them to be compared to? Please leave your answers in the comments. Thank you for reading.