Dougie Hamilton previously expressed interest in remaining a Carolina Hurricane. The Hurricanes previously expressed interest in retaining Hamilton. But the door for him to test the open market as a UFA was clearly nudged open when talks between Hamilton, agent J.P. Barry and the Hurricanes got shelved at the beginning of the season. A source confirmed to the Hockey News in May that no negotiations continued for most of the season and into the playoffs. It was thus not a massive surprise to learn Monday that, as reported by Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, the Hurricanes have given Hamilton permission to speak with other teams ahead of free agency, setting up the possibility of a sign-and-trade.
The opportunity is significant given the five-day early negotiation window for pending UFAs was eliminated when the NHL and NHL Players’ Association extended the CBA last summer. Only the Seattle Kraken have permission to speak with UFAs before they go to market July 28. The chance to work something out with Hamilton, then, should tantalize many teams.
It’s also not just a matter of Hamilton’s availability making him attractive, of course. He’s an extremely valuable asset with virtually all the qualities an NHL team covets in a defenseman. He’s right shot and a mammoth 6-foot-6 and 229 pounds. He moves tremendously well for such a big man. He’s the best goal-scorer at his position, leading all NHL D-men over the past four years despite the fact he missed 21 games with a broken leg last year. He’s not a classic intimidator, but he makes his long reach an asset. His under-the-hood statistics make him look even better than the eye test does. Over the past three seasons, among 219 defensemen with 1,000 or more minutes played at 5-on-5, Hamilton ranks first in goals, shots and rush attempts per 60; second in individual scoring chances and rebounds created per 60; sixth in individual high-danger shot attempts per 60; and 12th in points per 60. He has been arguably the best play driver in the league at his position over that span. The Canes have outscored opponents 140-102 at 5-on-5 with Hamilton on the ice in the past three seasons, holding a scoring-chance differential of plus-429.
One off-season ago, star right-shot blueliner Alex Pietrangelo scored a seven-year deal with the Vegas Golden Knights at an $8.8-million AAV, and he’s a natural comparable during Hamilton talks. Hamilton, though, has had a greater impact on the game in recent seasons and turning 28 this Thursday, is about 2.5 years younger than Pietrangelo was in his walk year. If we’re projecting what Hamilton is worth, then, Pietrangelo’s AAV should be the floor, not the ceiling, though Pietrangelo’s perceived intangibles as captain of a Cup winner draw might draw them even.
So can Carolina afford to retain its most important defenseman? Probably, but it’s complicated. On paper, the Canes project to have almost $28 million in cap space this off-season, but GM Don Waddell must make that money go a long way. Star left winger Andrei Svechnikov is an RFA. Even if he opts for the en-vogue bridge deal at three years, it should come at an AAV of $6 million or more. The Canes also have 0.0 NHL goalies signed for 2021-22, as Petr Mrazek and James Reimer are UFAs and, more importantly, breakout No. 1 netminder Alex Nedeljkovic is an RFA. Checking forwards Jordan Martinook and Brock McGinn hit the open market, too. So it’s not like Carolina can throw $9 million at Hamilton without pausing to ponder it for a moment.
So if we do see a sign-and-trade scenario and a new address for Hamilton, which teams are the best fits?
Consider the teams below, and if some of the justifications seem familiar, it's not a coincidence, as these are many of the same teams I listed recently as potential landing spots for Seth Jones.
POTENTIAL AGGRESSIVE SUITORS
The Blackhawks have financial flexibility for the first time in ages, aided by Brent Seabrook’s unofficial retirement, which will allow them to stash Seabrook’s $6.875-million AAV on LTIR. General manager Stan Bowman wants to accelerate his team’s rebuild so it can climb the Western Conference contender ladder while superstar Patrick Kane still has good years left. Considering the Blackhawks have been, statistically, the worst defensive team in hockey over the past two seasons, they might be desperate enough to outbid anyone for Hamilton.
The Flyers need a proper right-shot defenseman to handle top-pair duty alongside Ivan Provorov. Their D-corps wasn’t the same after Matt Niskanen unexpectedly retired before the season, and they’re hungry to return to contender status after a shockingly disappointing 2020-21 in which they missed the playoffs. They, like the Blackhawks, are an obvious suitor for Seth Jones, too. Jones is younger, but Hamilton grades out much better defensively over the last few seasons. He’s the better fit if coach Alain Vigneault wants to calm things down in front of goaltender Carter Hart.
The Fourth Period lists the Jets among teams expected to call Waddell about Hamilton, and it checks out. The right side of Winnipeg’s blueline has been depleted since the great exodus of 2019: Jacob Trouba (trade), Dustin Byfuglien (injury) and Tyler Myers (free agency). Hamilton’s well-rounded game would boost the Jets’ shabby 5-on-5 results. They ranked 22nd in expected goals per 60 this season and, with a leaky defense heavily dependent on goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, had the fifth-highest expected goals against per 60.
THE CLICKBAIT CATEGORY
There's a good case for re-signing Adam Larsson after he realized his potential as a defensive defenseman, sure. But with him and fellow righty Tyson Barrie slated to become UFAs, there’s room on the depth chart and the payroll for Hamilton, theoretically, especially if the Oilers are prepared to let Evan Bouchard and his entry-level contract occupy a full-time roster spot next season. With growing concern over the Oilers burning away crucial prime years of superstars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, it would make sense for GM Ken Holland to throttle up and try to propel his top-heavy squad deeper into the post-season. Having Hamilton and Darnell Nurse playing 30 minutes a night sounds like a fine recipe for winning more playoff rounds going forward.
Toronto Maple Leafs
If we project Toronto’s off-season plan based on GM Kyle Dubas’ comments in his season-ending media availability, it doesn’t sound like he wants to trade one of his core forwards, not following a season in which No. 2 center John Tavares was lost for the playoffs after a couple shifts. It appears Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander will get another chance together. Might the Leafs still consider an aggressive move in hopes of ending their first-round playoff defeat steak at five years? Defenseman Morgan Rielly is a key member of the team’s leadership group, but he does enter the final season of his contract. The Leafs have the flexibility to swap a lefty for righty, too, because T.J. Brodie is a left-hander who plays the right side and could switch back if absolutely necessary.
Is a Rielly-for-Hamilton trade going to happen? Highly unlikely, hence the Leafs landing in the “clickbait” category.
TOO SOON IN THE REBUILD?
Detroit Red Wings
Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman has indicated he’s willing to add a big name but only if it’s a young player with upside who can be a core contributor for years to come. The Jakub Vrana trade met those qualifications. For that reason, I included the Red Wings on a list of potential Jones suitors, but Hamilton feels like more of a stretch given he’s 16 months older and likely to cost more. He turns 28 later this week, and Jones turns 27 in October.
Los Angeles Kings
The Kings, bursting with promising prospects, are ready to start climbing a Pacific Division that projects to be the softest in the NHL next season. It’s almost time for GM Rob Blake to start complementing his youngsters with additional veteran pieces, whether he begins that process this summer or next. Hamilton would augment a Kings D-Corps that needs more mobility, but they already have a right-shot alpha making $11 million a year in Drew Doughty. It’s tough to imagine Blake, who has been arguably the NHL’s most conservative GM since taking the job in 2017, shelling out $20 million for the right side of his defense corps.
Columbus Blue Jackets
The Blue Jackets are expected to trade Jones before next month’s draft after Jones’ camp indicated to GM Jarmo Kekalainen that Jones doesn’t intend to re-sign after his contract expires a year from now. If the Blue Jackets want to directly replace his production, Hamilton would be a perfect fit. Consequently, if the Cup-contender Hurricanes only want to move Hamilton if they know they can line up a viable replacement…would a double sign-and-trade work here? New deal for Hamilton, extension beginning in 2022-23 for Jones? Hockey wise, both teams might come away happy in this scenario. The question is whether Hamilton would want to sign a long-term pact with a Columbus franchise in disarray.
New Jersey Devils
The Devils are throwing their cursed 2020-21 out the window and expect to rebound with better illness-and-injury luck next season. Stabilizing their defense corps with a long-term partner for Ty Smith would certainly accelerate their rebuild. Cap space wise, they’re situated to outspend pretty much anyone for Hamilton, too, at a projected $37.6 million. They could even afford to offer the last season of P.K. Subban to the Hurricanes as a stopgap and eat half his $9-million cap hit to facilitate a Hamilton acquisition.