Who has been Dougie Hamilton’s best partner?

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.

The pairings

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):

hamilton cf woi

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 WOWYs

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:

hamilton wowys

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.)

  • In terms of explaining why the coaching staff is okay with Russell/Hamilton vs Gio/Hamilton you can probably look at GF%: when Gio/Hamiton were together, the Flames goalies were letting everything in. Now that they have at least been average, the newer pairing likely seems better because less pucks are going in the net.

  • I know that Brodie and Gio have regained their form to an extent, but I wouldn’t be opposed to seeing Brodie and Hamilton on the first pair. Brodie is a god and could help cover any of Hamiltons defensive deficiencies. Plus Brodie is a good passer and you’d think that could be dangerous paired with Hamilton’s shot and offensive instincts. They would rack up points.

    You could then have Gio and Wideman on the second pairing and just let them feast on middling opposition.

    The other option I would suggest if you don’t want to break up Brodano would be recalling Nakladal and giving him a shot with Hamilton on the second pairing. You could then bump Russell down to the bottom pairing with Wideman, which is much better suited to their abilities.

  • piscera.infada

    Am I the only one around here who actually likes Russell?

    Ignoring all the underlying stats I feel like, by the eye test, he is a top-4 dman – I can understand the argument he might be a #5 on a top team but I just don’t see the massive deficiencies that everyone else around here, on the Russell sucks train, sees.

    I’ve watched the Flames religiously for 10 years straight and I just don’t see him as that much of a detriment.

    He doesn’t drive possession but he seems to make smart defensive plays.

    I’d take him any day over Smid, Engelland or Wideman and I actually really like Smid and Wideman. I’ve even warmed up to Engelland to a certain extent.

    I don’t see the justification for deserving so much criticism – its not like he is cringe worthy and you’re terrified when he is on the ice (i.e. Anders Eriksson, Derek Smith, Chris Butler, Anton Babchuk, Rafi Diaz or even Mike Commodore – as much as I loved him).

    I, for one, would be happy to retain him for 2-3 more seasons, until some prospects are ready, and have a core of the big 3 and him to stabilize the back end.

    I fully expect to be trashed for this rant so no hard feelings!

    • I actually like Russell by eye as well – at least from a tools perspective. But I also liked Dustin Boyd.

      The underlying results are bad enough that they are impossible to ignore.

      We’re going to break down Russell’s game in the near future with some qualitative observations to see how/why his possession rates are so shabby.

      • OKG

        I would point to:

        -Poor reach holding the puck in at the blue line

        -Non-existent zone-entry denial

        -Overly, unnecessarily lax gap control

        -Inaccurate breakout stretch passes

        -Impatient/Rushed clears along the boards

      • Rock

        I really liked Boyd as well but his biggest issue was getting knocked to the ice so easily. Once I noticed that in his game, and it’s lack of progress, it made me question his NHL potential.

        Back to Russell: I just think it’s his defending style that impacts his underlying numbers more than anything. He doesn’t press and force the issue, instead he just plays positionally and keeps the opposing players to the outside and allows them to get low quality shot attempts on net.

        @ Ari Yanover

        I don’t necessarily disagree. I don’t think he should be 3rd on the depth chart by any means either. He likely is being over utilized and should be behind Brodie, Gio and Hamilton at the very least.

        However, I don’t think him being #4 is that horrible of a gameplan. He has skill, smarts and the ability to lead by example.

        I just find it odd that before advanced stats became so widespread Russell was considered underrated. Now that all this information is readily available he is being classified as overrated and, as one article put it, not even NHL calibre.

        As I said, I think his style is what hinders his numbers the most as opposed to actual ability and I just don’t like seeing all the negativity directed towards a player I think is actually quite valuable to this team.

        Don’t get me wrong though I wouldn’t be disappointed if he was on the bottom pairing cause that would just mean our d-core was even better. Also, I understand having Engelland, Smid and Wideman makes it hard to retain him but I don’t think that should be the determining factor.

        • Ari Yanover

          I wouldn’t mind Russell being used as a #4 now either, but he isn’t. His numbers all season long have very, very clearly painted him as the team’s #3, which is too much – and we’ve seen zero indications of a willing to adjust that usage.

          I actually wonder if one of the biggest problems with Russell is if he’s bought into the shot blocking meme. Whenever anyone talks about him, the first thing always brought up is that he blocks shots. That’s his defining role. I’ve watched him have the chance to prevent opposing checkers enter the Flames’ zone and instead he’ll back off and try to block their shot after instead. His go-to move is often to just flop down to the ice. I don’t need fancy stats to tell me neither of those should be the preferred defensive strategy, and yet…

          Andrew MacDonald was the NHL’s shot blocking leader not too long ago. He got an insane deal. He’s currently in the AHL. I don’t want to see the Flames do what the Flyers did, and considering Russell’s rep and likely salary demands, I fear that’s where they could be headed if they choose to retain him (not that they really have the room to do so anyway – thanks to those poor contracts they already have, which should play a role in whether you’re able to re-sign a guy or not. It’s like Hudler; there are other reasons to not want to keep him, but then there’s the fact he’s simply going to cost too much to afford).

    • piscera.infada

      I’d take him any day over Smid, Engelland or Wideman and I actually really like Smid and Wideman. I’ve even warmed up to Engelland to a certain extent.

      I agree with this. I also don’t think Russell is the worst thing in the world, but I do still think that ideally, he’s a bottom pairing defender.

      I, for one, would be happy to retain him for 2-3 more seasons, until some prospects are ready, and have a core of the big 3 and him to stabilize the back end.

      This is where I struggle though. Due to the fact that Wideman, Engelland, and Smid are locked in to what essentially amounts to untradeable contracts for one more year, and the fact that Russell will likely be commanding both term and dollars as a free agent, I just don’t see how re-signing him is possible. In all likelihood, he’ll cost you $4.5 to $5.5 million per for 4 years. That’s not a wise investment.

      Perhaps if he was willing to take a 2 year contract at around $3 or $3.5 million per, you could fit him into a framework. That just seems as an extremely low-ball offer, and it doesn’t really clean-up the jam of 5,6,7 defenders.

    • I think the numbers don’t lie. Last year we had Russell/Wideman as a thing, and they weren’t stellar together, but maintained a playoff push without Gio.
      This year, Russell has not looked great. Not to the eye nor the stats. Lead the league (last I mean) in +- at the beginning. Has rebounded back to -5, while Hamilton is even.

      Russell’s struggles are in his own end. He regularly try to chip out the puck, which end up on the stick of a defender, whether it even makes it out of the D-zone or not. He plays passively when the other team is entering the zone (too much time & space). He is the King of Blocks because that is how he likes to defend. He is unable to defend against a cycle played by bigger players (Getzlaf size or strength).

    • Ari Yanover

      For the record, I definitely don’t hate Russell; I hate his usage, particularly as he’s being used as the team’s third defenceman nowadays when he really shouldn’t be.

      And that’s not on him, but it doesn’t mean I want to see more of him. But since he plays such a big role for the team, he’s going to be discussed – and since he’s not excelling in it, he’s going to be criticized.

      And as piscera.infada pointed out, it doesn’t make contractual or cap sense for the Flames to be able to keep him above any of the Flames’ other bottom pairing guys. I wouldn’t even go with giving him a Smid-style cap hit, because we already have that, and tying up too much money in depth players is one way in which teams get into cap hell.

      It’s not a great situation all around. He’s not a bad hockey player, he’s an overused one, and there’s seemingly no means to correct that (or at least none the team is willing to explore at this point in time).

      • Rock

        I agree with Sean if you take away the first 10 games where no flames were playing good then his stats are very good.

        Ari every article you write is putting Russell down. Even if he has a very good like the last game he had a goal 2 assist plus 2 and even a possession number of 58%. You still run him down but when you only look at possession stats then what do you expect. Hockey is more then just possession percentage.

        That is why it is better to read articles written by people who can play the game like The Calgary Flames – From 80 Feet Above he had a good article showing how much Russell and Hamilton have improved as a pairing.

        • hey man, if you want to read a blog that has to use stats with little to no context to validate how Russell is actually very good, go right ahead. These numbers don’t lie.

          And again, it’s not to say he’s bad (though, I think he is), it’s so show that he’s not a Top 4 D, and he definitely should not be paid like one when it comes time to re-sign him (for a multitude of reasons)

          yeah, optimism is nice, but it’s misplaced in guys like Russell. If you want to feel positive about something, look at how Dougie is really starting to be the defenseman we knew he would be when the Flames traded for him

  • piscera.infada

    I don’t think anyone (yourself included) could make the argument that Gio and Hamilton to begin the season were better than Russell and Hamilton now. Sometimes the issue on this site is that you are only looking at one dimension of a player in Corsi.

    You guys tend yo say ‘good at hockey’ or ‘bad at hockey’ when talking about corsi. I agree that it is an amazing predictor of long term success in the league but it is only one small element and these rolling 5 game segments don’t do it for me.

    At the beginning of the season a corsi event was Hamilton getting outmuscled and leaving a guy with a wide open shot, at this point in the season it’s more likely that a corsi event is a perimter shot with Hamilton and Russell in good position to deal with any rebounds.

    I don’t think Russell is a great partner for Hammy, but I do think he’s the best the team has at this point.