Veteran hockey observers never like to admit that any personnel transactions in the NHL surprise them. They like to reflect calmly on the thinking process of the parties involved and show why the moves seemed logical to them. These observers then like to provide a forceful opinion on who won the transaction and why.
I want to make an admission: I was surprised the Calgary Flames traded Dougie Hamilton. I was also surprised the Carolina Hurricanes traded Noah Hanifin. The fact they were traded for each other compounded my surprise.
Initially I was uncertain as to what either team was thinking, and I had no opinion on who got the better of the deal. Upon reflection, however, I believe the thinking process of each team can be determined. In order to render an opinion on the exchange, we must analyze what value each player is likely to bring as his NHL career proceeds. Then we’ll be in a position to answer the question: who will be a more valuable player, Noah Hanifin or Dougie Hamilton?
Both players have been on the fast track to regular roles in the NHL. Hamilton was drafted ninth overall by Boston in 2011, played one more year of junior hockey, and then made the Bruins as a 19-year-old in a season when they went to the Stanley Cup final. He became a top offensive defenseman in Boston over the next two seasons, and then, just after turning 22, was traded to the Flames in exchange for three draft picks. He spent three seasons in Calgary, and then was traded again, this time to Carolina. Hanifin was playing NCAA Div. I hockey as a 17-year-old and was drafted fifth overall by Carolina in 2015. He moved into the Hurricanes’ lineup at 18 and has developed the reputation as a solid two-way defenseman. After three seasons, he was traded to Calgary. Their statistics in their first three seasons are similar, but Hamilton has played three additional NHL seasons and increased his production.
Hanifin is a solid offensive contributor and was Carolina’s highest-scoring defenseman last season. Hamilton is one of the most dangerous offensive defensemen in the NHL. He tied for the league lead in goals by a D-man with 17 last year, and he could’ve had more. On a number of occasions, he hit crossbars or posts or missed open nets. There was nothing subtle about his approach. He is a volume shooter, second only to Brent Burns. Hamilton had significantly more power-play time than Hanifin, and his production justified it.
Both players are good skaters with strong backward mobility. Hamilton has slightly more hits because he is a far higher risk-taker, especially in the neutral zone. But sometimes his risks aren’t wise. There’s one glaring statistical difference in this area. Hanifin has more than twice as many takeaways as Hamilton over the past three seasons. He’s a much more determined defender. Hamilton, despite his mobility and reach, is a sloppy and sometimes lazy defender. He often frustrated the Flames with needless penalties in the defensive zone.
I never like to use the word “character.” It has a moral sound to it. I prefer to use the word “personality.” Certain people have the right personality to fit into the often harsh atmosphere of a professional hockey team. Others are less suited to this type of environment. By all accounts, Hanifin has no problems in this area. He is a hockey warrior and has the potential for leadership. Hamilton is different. He is said to be a good person – a family man who is an eager participant in charitable causes. However, there are whispers that he is often a man apart in the dressing room. He is simply different than most of his teammates. He has more potential as a lone wolf than as a leader.
What do each of these players project to become in the next five years? Hamilton is now 25. What you see now is almost certainly what you will get. He is a definite candidate to be on the first power-play unit of a Stanley Cup contender. His playmaking is decent but not at the elite level. He is one of the NHL’s top power-play shooters. His defensive deficiencies are unlikely to improve. Players with an indifference to this aspect of their game rarely change their spots. Although Hanifin’s offensive numbers in his first three seasons are comparable to those of Hamilton, I do not project the same jump in the next three seasons that Hamilton enjoyed. Hanifin is not an elite shooter and not the same sort of offensive risk-taker. But he has the potential to become an above-average offensive D-man. At the same time, he can be used on your top defensive pair as a matchup player. He has size, strength, commitment in all aspects of the game and above average hockey sense. He should be a much more versatile player than Hamilton.
BANG FOR BUCK
When the top-scoring blueliner on your team is under 25, he’s not usually a candidate to be traded. What happened in this situation? Several factors are important. Carolina is cash-strapped. The new owner, Tom Dundon, appears to be eccentric. It’s unlikely this team will be a contender in the foreseeable future. Hanifin was an RFA, and his upcoming contract negotiation could’ve become contentious. They need more offense from the blueline, as Justin Faulk appears to be declining. For the next three years, they know the price of Hamilton – $5.75 million AAV – and there will be no contract distractions. Calgary almost certainly believed Hamilton’s offense masked his poor defensive play. And, with the help of coach Bill Peters, formerly of the Hurricanes, the team recognized Hanifin’s value as being in excess of his offensive output. The Flames were willing to pay for overall performance, hence the six-year, $29.7-million contract they gave him in August. They clearly would rather give that money to Hanifin than to Hamilton.
Hamilton as a 21-year-old had actually accomplished less in his career than Hanifin has to this point. While Hamilton eventually blossomed offensively, averaging 45 points per season, he also exhibited defensive deficiencies. Hanifin scored 32 points as a 20-year-old. Projecting him to score close to 45 points annually over the next four seasons is not unreasonable. Defensively, he is already superior to Hamilton. In his next contract, Hamilton will command top money because of his offensive numbers. I don’t believe he is worth it. Teams that lock into players with his deficiencies usually do not win. Hanifin may never be as productive offensively as Hamilton, but his numbers will be decent. And he can match up against the opposition’s best players. His salary might be less than that of Hamilton, but he could provide a better return on the investment. By no means is this decision of the “slam dunk” variety, but Hanifin should provide more value to a future contender than Hamilton.