Dougie Hamilton came to the Flames with a lot of fanfare. Here we had a 22-year-old defenceman who had already played three seasons in the NHL, just coming off of his first season averaging more than 21 minutes a game. Any time you can get ahold of a top four defender that young, the future of your team should be in good shape.
With T.J. Brodie’s broken hand forcing him to miss the first nine games of the season, the door was wide open for Hamilton to become the Flames’ new right-hand man on the top pairing. He was just coming off of playing in some of the toughest circumstances his previous team, the Boston Bruins, had to offer, and was going to play alongside Mark Giordano who, barring injuries, had turned into a perennial Norris candidate. Everything was perfect.
Except things didn’t go that smoothly. Hamilton (and Giordano, and the entire team, for that matter) stumbled out of the gate, young and in a new conference on a new, still-rebuilding team. He fell to the third pairing, adapted, and worked his way back into the top four.
Except where he should be the Flames’ number three guy, his usage and ice time indicates he’s more like the fifth. And that’s really not how it should be.
Moving up the depth chart?
In 2014-15, Hamilton averaged 21:09 a game, good for third out of all Bruins defencemen. In 2015-16, he averages 19:07, fifth out of all Flames defencemen. There’s a clear separation between the top two – Brodie and Giordano averaging 25:21 and 24:23 a game, respectively – and the rest, but there’s still a drop off between three (Kris Russell, 22:45), four (Dennis Wideman, 21:09), and Hamilton, two minutes fewer.
Even with Hamilton’s regular partner being Russell, and therefore, supposedly secure in a top four position, it hasn’t been realized. This does, in part, come down to special teams usage: Hamilton is fourth in power play ice time (89:43), behind Wideman (143:06), Giordano (134:41), and Brodie (90:21). On the penalty kill, though, he’s sixth with just 17:26 played short handed; the top four penalty killing defencemen have all played at least 70 minutes, so that’s where he’s really behind the pack.
There’s been some suggestion of Hamilton’s ice time improving as of late – particularly on the man advantage – but 47 games through the season, things have hardly been consistent. In fact, they’re closer to damning than anything else.
Aside from a spike a couple of games ago – the Flames’ 2-1 shootout loss to the Oilers – Hamilton’s overall ice time as the season has gone on has not been particularly high. He’s not playing third pairing minutes anymore, but he’s struggling to crack even 20 minutes a game, especially as of late. He’s being used more frequently on the power play now, but even so much as attempting to play him on the penalty kill seems to be completely out of the question.
It’s not as though he was a prominent penalty killer on the Bruins, either, though last season he played 83:46 shorthanded: fifth out of all Bruins defencemen, with the top four all playing over 100 minutes (and, in Dennis Seidenberg’s case, 200).
But regarding the power play: in 2014-15, Hamilton was second in defencemen ice time on the Bruins’ power play with 180:22 played. He also led the Bruins in power play points, suggesting he probably belonged on the man advantage. This season, he has two fewer points on the man advantage than Wideman does, but he’s required 53:23 fewer minutes to accumulate his offence. He’s also thrown just six fewer shots on net with that power play time.
Hamilton may be a top four defenceman in theory, but he’s certainly not being played like one.
It shouldn’t even be close
After them, though, it’s been Russell and Wideman. The pairing gave the illusion of being a good second pairing option last season, one mostly brought about by the fact that no matter how poorly the Flames may have been playing, they continued to win games. But their circumstances were lesser, and pucks went against them far more often than they did against Brodie and Giordano.
That’s still the case this season, but there’s the added twist of Hamilton being thrown into the mix. And when you compare their success rates, it shouldn’t even be a question if Hamilton should be the number three defenceman on this team.
Via War on Ice:
Once again, nobody compares to Brodie and Giordano. The Flames’ top pairing continues to play in the toughest circumstances: toughest zone starts, toughest competition. All the while, they continue to move the puck north more often than not relative to their team, with only rookie Brett Kulak – playing in far more sheltered circumstances – beating them in corsi rel over the six NHL games he played.
But then, there’s the sheltered group. It’s not bad to be sheltered. Wideman, for example, is known more as an offensive defenceman than a defensive one, so it makes sense to give him more offensive zone starts. It’s putting him in position to score, or at least be less of a liability.
Here’s the problem: Hamilton plays in tougher circumstances than Wideman, and is roughly on par with Russell. And he’s better than both of them.
Russell and Wideman have the worst defencemen corsi rel percentages on their team. Relative to the rest of the Flames – an already mostly poor possession team – they’re the worst of the bunch, even with their offensive zone starts. The puck is more likely to go against them often than not, and this isn’t a new occurrence: it’s a carryover from the previous season.
Hamilton, meanwhile, is the only other defenceman to be a positive corsi rel player. It’s not by much – he’s sitting at +0.92 – but it’s more than the rest of his teammates can say; particularly Russell, who plays in nearly identical conditions. Russell’s corsi rel sits at -5.82, so the ratings aren’t even close. Hamilton completely blows him out of the water.
And yet, he’s essentially being treated as the Flames’ fifth defender.
You can justify this with conspiracy theories, I suppose: playing Russell and Wideman more to make them look more attractive to trade suitors, to show off their prowess in handling big minutes, for example. But assuming this team is trying to actually win games – a front office advocating for a tank is not the same as the on-ice product trying to make it come true – its defencemen usage is completely counterintuitive to that goal.
We’re well past the point of Hamilton’s rough start with the Flames. A bad start to the season shouldn’t result in continued mismanagement this far into the year; and yet, here we are.