Last season, Dougie Hamilton entered the second season of his seven-season contract with the New Jersey Devils. He made a total salary of $6.3 million in 2022-23 per CapFriendly. Hamilton proceeded to put up a career-season in terms of production. He tied Barry Beck’s franchise record for goals by defensemen with 22. He became the second Devil defenseman in franchise history to put up over 70 points in a season with 74 - four short of Scott Stevens’ franchise record. He scored an absolutely crucial overtime goal in Game 3 against Our Hated Rivals that sparked a comeback that ended with the team’s first playoff series win since 2012. All while putting up solid on-ice rates and averaging 17:20 of 5-on-5 ice time per game. It was a brilliant season for the big defenseman. What do you follow that up with?
That is a more relevant question than you may think. Hamilton did not just complete a career year but he is also about enter a career year in terms of earnings. Hamilton’s salary will double up to $12.6 million for this and next season per CapFriendly. Hamilton will be the highest paid New Jersey Devil. Even Timo Meier’s lucrative extension puts him at $12 million in salary for next season; Hamilton is out-earning even that. (Aside: Enter standard comment about how great Jack Hughes’ and Nico Hischier’s contracts are.) For another perspective, Hamilton stands to make more than half of the blueline’s total salary for next season. And again in 2024-25. These are the peak years of his contract and it is following what was clearly a peak year for him on the ice. Can he possibly play up to it?
Honestly, that depends on what you consider to be worth $12.6 million. On its own I do not think he can. Mostly because I do not think any one defenseman realistically can be worth the third highest salary in the NHL for 2023-24. Sure, Hamilton could go off and have a Norris-caliber season and dominate the league once more. But is that realistic? I am not so sure. (Aside: Hamilton finished sixth in Norris voting last season.) Plus, Hamilton is going to make more than last year’s Norris winner Erik Karlsson - who just had a season that is may be worth $12.6 million with his 101 points alone. I doubt Hamilton or even Karlsson or any other defensemen will break 100 anytime soon. Hamilton will also make more than Zach Werenski, Adam Fox, Alex Pietrangelo, and Seth Jones; all defensemen going to get $12+ million next season. Perhaps this provides some perspective to help ease the sticker shock. Can Hamilton do better than Jones and Werenski? Probably, yes. Fox and Pietrangelo - eh, ask again later. (My current thinking: Pietrangelo, yes, Fox, maybe not)
The source of my doubt is based on the fact that the now 30-year old defenseman is coming off a career year with real high-water marks. He shot at 8% last season, a mark he has surpassed only once in his career back in 2019-20 when he played in 47 games for Carolina. As stated earlier, Hamilton chased franchise records for defensemen in both goals and posts. His previous highs in goals were 18 (2018-19) and 50 (2016-17). Hamilton even played in 82 games, something he had not done since 2018-19. A deeper look at his 5-on-5 production at Natural Stat Trick shows that he had his highest rate of secondary assists since 2016-17 at 0.51 per 60 minutes. While I think secondary assists matter, they are not as repeatable as primary assists. Hamilton also generated an individual expected goal rate of 0.38; while higher than all but two recent seasons, still adds to the idea that Hamilton got plenty of fortune with his shots and his overall production in 5-on-5.
This is not to say that Hamilton’s 2022-23 was filled with career highs or things he has not done in 4-5 seasons ago. Let us look at his Natural Stat Trick 5-on-5 stats again. Hamilton’s rate of shots on net in 5-on-5 play was 8.77 per 60, which is actually in line with his last five seasons and a downgrade from his first as a Devil. His rate of unblocked shot attempts last season was 12.1 per 60, which is also similar to his last six seasons in the NHL. It can also be argued that in Ruff’s system, Hamilton has been allowed to activate more. That would explain individual scoring chance rates remaining above six per 60 minutes for each of the last two seasons and his individual high danger scoring chance rates staying above one in the same time period. As another favorable point, Hamilton’s individual point percentage - or the percentage of goals the Devils scored in 5-on-5 that had a Hamilton point on - was 44.4%. He has had seasons fluctuating between 40% and 50% and this past season was a big gain over 2021-22 when his IPP was a career low of 32.76%. Provided that Hamilton will continue to get big minutes and 5-on-5 shifts with Jack Hughes, Jesper Bratt, Nico Hischier, and Dawson Mercer - like he did last season - then Hamilton will have plenty of opportunities to continue to get on the scoresheet and maintain a solid IPP. Which will mean plenty of points given how offensively skilled and threatening those four are (not to mention Timo Meier, Tyler Toffoli, etc.)
Now let us consider the power play. This is an important area of value for Hamilton. Hamilton put up 36 of his 74 points last season in 5-on-5 play. In power play situations, he put up eight goals and 28 points. Those 28 power play points were a career high last season - as well as his power play goals and assists, regardless of whether you split them or not. Again, his shooting percentage was remarkably high at 16%. Hamilton only broke double digits in Sh% twice before. He at least shot the puck 50 or more times and attempted over 100 shots earlier in his career, so that could happen again. But the shooting luck, eh, not so much. What mitigates this is that, again, Hamilton has the green light to get closer and that explains 48 individual scoring chances - also a career high. And Hamilton also had a career high just in ice time on the power play. The Devils’ leaned on him with 251 minutes played - which explains his incredibly high (and also a career high) 70% IPP.
Power play stats will obviously be influenced by how the unit as a whole performs. Hamilton is expected to continue to lead the top power play unit, which should have some combination of Jack Hughes, Hischier, Timo Meier, and others. There are a lot of potential options to create two viable power play units. On paper, the Devils are not lacking the talent. The issue has been putting the puzzle pieces in the right place. Last season, the team had a good power play conversion rate of 21.9%, the 13th best in the NHL. A real improvement from Mark Recchi’s Error thanks, in part, to Andrew Brunette. However, that was a result of 49 goals scored out of 224 opportunities. There was a sense that a team as offensively strong as the Devils were at 5-on-5 last season could have been better on power plays. Brunette signed with Nashville to be their hard coach and Travis Green was brought in. Will Green build on the gains Brunette made? Hopefully.
For the sake of Hamilton’s season, hopefully so as well. A more productive power play will likely mean more chances for Hamilton rack up points. Unless Hamilton gets pulled off the top power play unit, man advantages will be one area where Hamilton can provide the value he can in the hopes of earning as much as his incoming salary as possible.
I do need to emphasize that Hamilton’s offense and his production are why he is getting paid as much as he does. I recognize that the position's name has defense in it. However, being a great player in the defensive zone, while important, is worth only so much in the NHL. Look at Jonas Siegenthaler. Last season, he put up on-ice rates similar to Hamilton in 5-on-5 play while demonstrating that he can hang in 1-on-1 situations with anyone, Connor McDavid included. I would go as far as to say that Siegenthaler is one of the better defensive defensemen in the NHL. And he was given an extension that begins and peaks in this coming season at just $4.25 million in salary. He is obviously doing well compared to the majority of the world, but he is also being paid roughly a third of what Hamilton is making. That is not an accident or a coincidence given that Tom Fitzgerald gave both players their current contracts. Hamilton may not be as adept as John Marino in his own end, but he handles big minutes and difficult situations well enough. He did it with Siegenthaler whilst providing the offense and the points, which is what earns defensemen the big bucks. That goes back to the main issue this post explores, which is whether Hamilton can do enough to justify his salary.
It is possible that this is not the best way to look at it. Sure, season-by-season, it is not unreasonable to say that Hamilton is going to be worth $12.5 million per season in salary for each of the next two seasons and $11.55 million in the season after that. However, another way to look at this is to look at Hamilton’s time as a Devil so far. Regardless of the distribution, Hamilton is going to get $63 million. Is Hamilton living up to the entirety of the contract? So far, the answer has to be yes. He was signed to be the team’s top defensemen, their top option in man advantage situations, and to provide value at both ends of the rink. Hamilton has done that so far, both amid a terrible 2021-22 season and a fantastic 2022-23 season. Hamilton was as much as a part of last season’s success as anyone’s. His role allowed Damon Severson to thrive with lesser minutes, contribute to the team’s top scorer’s successes, and be heavily involved in an improved power play. Hamilton obviously has to do more to make good on the total value on the contract, but I think he is ahead of the pace in that sense.
A third way to look at it would be that if the team is successful, then the money is worth it regardless of what the player himself does. Sure, it may end up being an overpayment and it may not look great. But if the Devils go on to win Cups and return to their contending form from the early 2000s, then will many of the People Who Matter care much? Would ownership - the people who are signing the checks - care that much about how the money is spent? Cynical as it may read, it is not my money. If Josh Harris and David Blitzer are satisfied with how things are going with the Devils, then they may just accept the Hamilton contract as the cost of doing good business.
This does get to why this issue does matter. Management has to care about Hamilton’s contract because of the salary cap implications. That big jump in salary is why Hamilton’s cap hit is $9 million. The contract also came with a no movement clause for this and next season, which are the peak salary years in the deal. This means that this $9 million hit is on the books for sure. Fitzgerald will get some wiggle room after 2025 when Hamilton has to submit a 10-team trade list and the base salary - the one the team pays throughout the season - drops dramatically to $1 million. By that time, Luke Hughes’ entry level contract ends, Simon Nemec’s enters the last season of his ELC provided it does not slide, and the Devils will be deeper into current deals for Hughes, Hischier, Bratt, and Meier while also, what I presume, will be big extensions for Dawson Mercer and maybe Akira Schmid. This does not even include the more depth signings to fill out the roster, which does add up in volume.
The point is that as the Devils contend and become a cap ceiling team, Fitzgerald and his staff will have to get the most out of their players. Even if the salary cap rises, a $9 million amount is still significant on top of the salary being eight-figures. This means it is in the team’s best interest that the Devils get as much as they can out of their players. And that means they need a lot out of Hamilton as he is now in the big money years of his contract. Therefore, it is a question as to how much can play up to it as much as possible right after his amazing career year. Even that is a matter of your perspective about the money and the contract.
Now that I want to know what you think. What do you expect from Dougie Hamilton after his fantastic 2022-23 season? Do you think he can repeat any of it? Or come close to that? What would Hamilton need to do to be worth $12.6 million in salary? Or even his cap hit of $9 million? And if the Devils are successful, will that even matter? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Dougie Hamilton in the comments.