When Dougie Hamilton was first acquired, there was a lot of excitement in Calgary. For the Flames, who had glaring holes on defence, to get a 22-year-old defenceman who was already a top four guy was huge.
The only question was: who was he to play with? The top pairing of T.J. Brodie and Mark Giordano was already well-established, potentially as even the best pairing in the NHL. Splitting them up would have been madness. That left Kris Russell as the next candidate in line: a guy who had worked his way into the top four, beloved by many for his gritty play, and a left-shooting defender to go with Hamilton’s right.
But things didn’t go to plan to start the season. Brodie was injured in his very first pre-season game, and that affected things from the top-down. With eyes on him, Hamilton struggled, playing everywhere from the first pairing to the third and seemingly throwing away his shot along the way. And the Flames were, well, bad; the upgrade in defence they were supposed to get not apparent in the slightest.
We’re 30 games into the season now, and the originally assumed pairings have been in place for a fair amount of time. But Hamilton’s moved throughout the lineup. Because there’s been such diversity in his usage, let’s take a quick look at how he’s performed with who.
Eight defencemen have dressed for the Calgary Flames so far this season, and Hamilton has spent time with the other seven. That amount of time varies, though, from the 222:38 5v5 even strength minutes he’s played with Russell, to the 4:12 he’s played with Brett Kulak.
Since four minutes and 12 seconds is basically nothing, let’s just focus on the partners Hamilton has played with throughout the year thus far. There are four main guys he’s been partnered with:
- Games 1-6: Mark Giordano
- Game 7: Ladislav Smid and Kris Russell
- Games 8-9: Kris Russell
- Games 10-13: Deryk Engelland
- It should be noted T.J. Brodie made his return in game 10.
- Games 14-20: Kris Russell
- Game 21: Dennis Wideman and T.J. Brodie
- Games 22-25: Kris Russell
- Games 26-28: Dennis Wideman
- Kris Russell was out of the lineup for these three games with injury.
- Games 29-30: Kris Russell
That comes to 16 games spent with Russell as his partner, six games with Giordano, four with Wideman, and four with Engelland.
Via War on Ice, here’s Hamilton’s 5v5 CF% throughout the season thus far (five game moving average):
His early season struggles have been widely noted and acknowledged. When removed from the top pairing, though, Hamilton appears to have experienced a surge in performance correlating with his time spent with Engelland on the third pairing (and, perhaps more importantly, his greatest stretch of offensive zone starts in sheltered circumstances).
Since then, he appears to have levelled out, and is currently in the midst of a positive possession stretch.
Some of that might have to do with his partner, though his time with Russell has varied across the board, and the only chances he had with Giordano were way back when he was still adjusting to his new team in a new conference. If Hamilton and Giordano were to be reunited now, they probably wouldn’t be nearly as disastrous as they were to start.
This is to say nothing of the potential he and Brodie, the two youngest defencemen, could have with one another; but we’re only 30 games in (and only 20 with Brodie having actually played), so there’s still plenty of time for them to get together in the future.
The top four defencemen Hamilton has spent time with have been Russell, Giordano, Wideman, and Engelland. Here are their with and without yous regarding their time playing with Hamilton:
For all the struggles Hamilton had with Giordano, there seems to be absolutely no mention of his struggles with Russell. Over 104:40 with Giordano, the two shared a 47.30% 5v5 CF; over 223:28 with Russell, they have a 46.90% 5v5 CF.
Hamilton has actually been worse with Russell than he was with Giordano. And he’s played in easier circumstances with Russell as well: 52.10% zone starts and not on the top pairing with him, compared to the 51.70% zone starts he had with Giordano.
Now, the variations in these percentages aren’t that great. Still, they don’t paint the most flattering portrait of Hamilton’s time with Russell. If Hamilton and Giordano were so terrible together, how is it Hamilton and Russell can be viewed as a success when, at absolute best, they’re posting similar numbers? They’re still essentially outgunned.
Furthermore: Hamilton has pretty clearly performed better away from Russell, while Russell, without Hamilton, has been the least impressive of the four when it comes to actually possessing the puck.
Then, there’s the fact Hamilton appears to have played much, much better with Wideman and Engelland than with anybody else. Engelland you can partially attribute to zone starts – the two started 65.0% of their shifts in the offensive zone together – but with Wideman, their shared zone starts were 49.10%, the lowest of all regulars.
Hamilton has spent less time with the latter two defencemen (64:46 with Wideman and 42:11 with Engelland at even strength), which can account for the spikes in performance – but still doesn’t justify the numbers he and Russell have put up with one another.
Russell seemed to be the natural fit from the beginning, but he’s overused (and still is, averaging more ice time than Hamilton, despite Hamilton’s consistently better performances as of late) and not suited for a top four role – something his partner actually is.
Hamilton boosts Russell, and he’s much more important than him, too. The Flames still have the start of a decent defence core for years to come, but it likely won’t meet its true potential – the potential so widely bragged about before the season began – until someone is found who can match Hamilton’s practical, tactical brilliance. (If he can help boost Russell’s trade value in the mean time, though, then all the better.)