Dougie Hamilton’s decision to sign with the New Jersey Devils in free agency was a massive shift for the franchise towards playoff contention. Since then, the Devils have rocked with Dougie as their top defender on the right side, and he rewarded them last season with one of the best offensive seasons for a defenseman in franchise history. Naturally, Dougie has been a good fit with Jonas Siegenthaler, whose defensive acumen made him a gift of a pickup from the Capitals amidst the COVID pandemic. As a top pairing, they worked to two-way dominance at times last year. But what if Jonas Siegenthaler is not the best option on the team to be the first pairing left defenseman?
Luke Hughes’ Fast Start With Room to Grow
With 12 points in 19 games this season, Luke Hughes is producing a lot for a 20-year old defenseman while looking like he still has room to improve his scoring pace. Fortunately for the Devils, he has not been a one-way player, as he has a 56.93 xGF% and 58.08 CF%. Percentages can only tell you so much though. Is he a high-risk, high-reward player? The early returns indicate that while he does provide a lot of offensive reward, there is not much defensive risk in his game. He leads all left-handed defensemen on the team with a 47.43 CA/60 and trails only Kevin Bahl with his 2.21 xGA/60. By comparison, Jonas Siegenthaler has a 55.85 CA/60 and a 2.71 xGA/60. That’s eight more attempts and half an expected goal more from Siegenthaler per 60 even strength minutes.
Even compared to established NHL defensemen, Luke Hughes stands out as being effective at both ends. The only time that Hughes has struggled so far in the NHL has been when he was paired with Brendan Smith earlier in the season. Now that Colin Miller is back and playing impactful defense, Smith has transitioned to forward, and Luke Hughes is playing much better. Fortunately for the Devils, his success is not limited to Miller, as he also has success with Marino and plays his best with Hamilton.
Hischier-Bratt-Palat was also bonkers early on. Our best unit F or D early on. pic.twitter.com/fBcyx6T6ZW— CJ Turtoro (@CJTDevil) November 26, 2023
Acknowledging that this is a power play goal below, and not one at even strength, this play from the game against the Sabres on Saturday shows how deadly Luke Hughes’ skillset is in the offensive zone. Not only is Luke able to shield the puck from the forward going for the loose puck up high, he is able to make a cut towards the net as he does so. In one move, he takes a Sabre out of the play entirely and earns himself the scoring chance and the resulting goal.
The Force is strong with this one. pic.twitter.com/XkICjk55uG— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) November 26, 2023
I have felt thus far that Luke Hughes has not been attacking the net quite enough, though. This may just be a consequence of him not wanting to pull himself out of position to defend the counterattack, but I think the more that Hughes shoots from the high slot and surrounding areas, the better. He likes to shoot low, not too dissimilar from his brother’s shots through the seven-hole. If the team could get traffic in front with more consistency, I suspect more of his shots will hit the back of the net, whether they are tipped or beat screened goalies cleanly. A positive to Luke’s shooting style is that he does not create super-long rebounds, and he does not seem to miss the net very often. This helps reduce the risk of him jumping up in the play, which is really important for whether he can play on the top pairing.
Why Luke Should Be on the Top Pairing, Even if Dougie is His Partner
Coming into this season, many assumed that Luke Hughes would be best suited for a defensive partner on the second or third pair, whether he would be with John Marino, Colin Miller, or even Kevin Bahl, if you were worried about physicality and protection. As far as I could see, not many were clamoring for Dougie Hamilton to be Luke Hughes’ defensive partner. Let me be one of the first.
This season, Jonas Siegenthaler simply has not had as much success in the defensive zone. His expected goals against are very high for a “shutdown” defenseman, and his actual results have not cut it so far. Yes, much of this play has been with Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier missing, but Luke has had to deal with the same situations. With the Hughes-Hamilton pairing on the ice, in 59:46, the Devils have a 66.18 CF% and 62.43 xGF%, while the real goal count has been 4-4. With the Siegenthaler-Hamilton pairing on the ice, in 243:25, the Devils have a 57.54 CF%, 57.82 xGF%, and a 9-11 goal count.
While the results have not been terrible on the top pairing, I think everyone would agree that we need more out of it. Jonas Siegenthaler has done an excellent job of holding the top pairing spot down on the left side over the past couple years, but with Luke Hughes rising it is time for Hughes to take the reins of the defense. Hughes’ offensive focus might cause some issues with Hamilton at times, but Siegenthaler has not provided enough defensive stability to justify keeping Hughes on the second and third pairings.
It is not like Luke Hughes has no defensive tools. For a young defender, he is expert at loose puck retrievals in the defensive zone, even with a forechecker on his back. Hughes is able to use his superior speed and edgework to both get to the puck first and turn it back up the ice before quickly reading his pass options. This would be of particular use to Dougie Hamilton, who is not particularly fleet of foot and can easily be beat by faster forwards chasing loose pucks and dump-ins. With Luke Hughes backing up the play, it would be a lot harder for opposing teams to game on Dougie’s skating speed, as Jonas Siegenthaler is statistically only above-average in terms of skating speed. While Siegenthaler has had 99 speed bursts between 18 and 20 MPH, and 15 bursts between 20 and 22 MPH, Luke Hughes has had 136 bursts of 18-20 MPH and 33 bursts of 20-22 MPH. Luke Hughes can cover more ice than Jonas Siegenthaler can, which makes him a capable partner for Dougie Hamilton. In-zone defense will need work, but if the forwards buy into the defensive system as they did against Buffalo, it won’t matter quite as much. And if Luke Hughes starts separating bodies from pucks with his great transition defense positioning (thanks to his skating), like he did against Buffalo, I don’t think the complaints about the defensive risk would last too long.
Through about a quarter of the season, Luke Hughes has had the defensive impacts necessary of a top pairing defenseman, and he is looking more and more comfortable with the puck. If Hughes and Hamilton were combined on one pairing, it would be extremely difficult for other teams to take the puck away from the top six, and Luke would be much more likely to break out offensively. They could have to deal with the forwards, or Dougie Hamilton taking one of his booming slap shots, or Luke Hughes breaking them down from up high. They could have to deal with all three in the span of single shifts. A five-pronged attack with the most talented skaters on the ice? Sign me up for that. In the meantime, Jonas Siegenthaler would be freer to feast on lesser competition, easing his minutes and workload as Luke Hughes grows into the franchise top-pairing defenseman he was drafted to be.
What do you think of this proposition? Do you think that Luke Hughes has the tools for cover for Dougie Hamilton defensively, or would this be doomed to fail (despite their already-good on-ice results) with more ice time together? Do you think that a bump in competition and role would be of benefit to growing Luke Hughes in the long-term? Or should Jonas Siegenthaler stay on the top pair? Do you think Jonas will rediscover what made him so effective defensively? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and thanks for reading.