Is Dougie Hamilton Actually Elite?

A deep dive into - depending on who you ask - the most underrated or overrated defenceman in the NHL.

Report: Carolina's Dougie Hamilton could be on trading block ...

If you’ve spent any time on analytics-adjacent Hockey Twitter you’ve probably noticed that a certain defenceman gets talked about constantly as though he was God’s gift to the sport: Dougie Hamilton. It’s almost a meme at this point how obsessively effusive the stats community is about a guy who rarely gets credit from more mainstream sources.

A couple of weeks ago, I took a deep look at Seth Jones, a defenceman who’s generally considered to be elite, but who has mediocre analytics. What I found was that the skillset that Jones possesses is incredibly visible to the eye test - confident puckhandling, excellent transition play, and a great shot - but does not necessarily lead to the kinds of on-ice outcomes that macro-level stats tend to value. I’m going to use the same methodology to explain why analysts believe Dougie Hamilton is one of the league’s best defencemen, and square his elite macro-level results with the eye test and microstats in order to bridge the gap. Do those who rely on these models overrate Dougie, misleadingly presenting a dominant two-way possession monster that doesn’t actually exist? Or do most hockey fans underrate him, over-fixating on bad penalties and turnovers and missing the forest for the trees as a result?

The Analytical Case for Dougie

By EvolvingWild’s RAPM, a model that represents the best way we currently have to isolate a player’s on-ice impact from their teammates, competition, deployment, venue, score, etc., Dougie Hamilton has been an elite defenceman at even strength for the past four seasons. By expected Wins Above Replacement he ranks seventh in the league in that time; by expected goal impact, he’s number one by a large margin.

The headline for Hamilton is his exceptional ability to generate offence. His isolated impact on expected goals for (a model that uses historical data to estimate shot quality) has been consistently elite. Furthermore, despite his reputation as an offence-only player, Hamilton’s defensive numbers are extremely strong - between the 82nd and 90th percentile in three of the past four seasons. At the core task of defence, which is to prevent your goalie from facing quality chances against, Hamilton appears to get the job done. This is especially impressive considering the number of minutes he plays and the quality of competition he faces.

It may not always be pretty, but there are few defencemen who tilt the ice to the extent that Dougie does. Therefore, it would seem that he should be considered one of if not the most positively impactful defencemen in the NHL.

Digging a Little Deeper

There’s a good chance that you didn’t find that fully convincing, especially if you came into this piece skeptical of the premise. My goal here is to use a combination of statistics, the eye test, and fan perception to go a little bit deeper than the macrostats, explain how those results actually come to be, and maybe interrogate whether they might be misleading.

Who Does Hamilton Play With?

A common knock on Hamilton is that he always plays with elite partners, which allegedly inflates his stats and leads to him getting undue credit. There’s no doubt that he’s been incredibly fortunate in terms of who he’s had the opportunity to play with over the past four seasons; as you can see below, Mark Giordano and Jaccob Slavin have been his most frequent partners by a huge margin.

That fact Giordano and Slavin are both excellent defensive players understandably leads many people to dismiss Hamilton as more of a beneficiary than a driver. One Flames fan bluntly articulated this:

Dougie Hamilton benefitted from Mark Giordano more than the reverse. Dougie was able to play at a higher risk because Mark Giordano is that damn good. The pairing was parasitic in nature and one could argue that Dougie at times brought Giordano down, despite the offensive production.

But there’s an issue with this narrative.

In 2016-17, Dougie and Giordano overwhelmingly drove play together, superb at both ends of the ice. When separated, things were much less rosy. In 386 minutes Giordano, paired mostly with TJ Brodie, got absolutely caved in despite beneficial zone starts, teammates, and game situations. Meanwhile the Flames were even better offensively with Hamilton paired with Jyrki Jokipakka (in his final NHL season) although they were terrible defensively. Gio did face tougher competition, but not to such an extreme extent as to explain the huge gulf between the two. In 2017-18 the Flames wisely recognized that splitting these guys up would be stupid, and so they barely played apart from one another. When they did play apart (facing generally the same level of competition), their results were pretty much identical - great offensively but awful defensively.

In Carolina things have been similar but with a major change - Dougie’s numbers are even better away from Slavin, while Slavin’s are much worse away from Dougie. In 18-19, Slavin spent the bulk of that time with Brett Pesce, and they were just about average as a pair - keeping in mind that they did play a decent amount against top competition and protecting a lead. Interestingly, it wasn’t the top competition that was the issue - they actually got caved in mostly by middle-tier opponents. Meanwhile, Hamilton and Trevor van Riemsdyk clobbered their opponents offensively while preventing chances against at an above-average rate.

While it might be tempting to dismiss these as “fancy stats,” the basic fact of the matter is that the scoring chances the Flames and Hurricanes gave up when Giordano and Slavin were separated from Dougie were far more frequent and of a higher quality than when they were together. If Hamilton really was a leech or a second pair defenceman masquerading as a #1, this wouldn't be the case.

The combination of Hamilton’s aggressive offensive play and scoring chance generation with the defensive conscience of his defensive partner has led to the most effective four-season stretch of primary defensive pairs that any blueliner in the league can boast. Giordano/Hamilton and Slavin/Hamilton have both been absolutely dominant. This is perfect chemistry, not parasitic dependence. While Flames fans can fairly point out that Giordano’s full abilities as a two-way defenceman are under-served when he has to be the defensive conscience, he and TJ Brodie have never tilted the ice the way he and Dougie did.

That being said, I do think it’s fair to cast some aspersions on Dougie’s individual defensive “ability” as it’s represented by some analytical models. He was and is pretty clearly an offensive defenceman in terms of the way he plays the game, and possibly one of the most aggressive in the league for that matter. While I do think that his personal defensive aptitude is underrated, by WAR he currently profiles as a ~85th percentile defensive player. Even if you go by the analytical definition of “defence,” I think it’s likely that the uniqueness of the way he plays and the calibre & limited variability of his partners distorts things to a certain extent. At the same time, in an odd way, Hamilton does make his partners better defensively. How much of that comes from his possession ability and how much comes from them needing to be more on the ball to potentially cover counterattacks? There's no way to know for sure.

How Does Hamilton Generate Offence?

So what we’ve established is that statistically, Hamilton has a huge positive effect on his team and his defensive partner when he’s on the ice. But I want to know how it happens: what is he doing that’s leading to these outcomes, and why doesn’t it show up to the eye test of many fans?

Once you dig into the microstats (tracking of specific on-ice events), you start to get a picture of how Hamilton accrues such gaudy offensive numbers: he shoots the puck. A lot. He ranks among the league’s top defencemen in shots, shot attempts, expected goals, and rebounds created per 60 minutes, and this year he finished 1st in three of those categories.

Hamilton’s offensive game is built around shooting the puck and getting in position to shoot the puck. What makes him so much more dangerous in that regard than other defencemen is his willingness and ability to take shots from all over the ice, not just the point. When we think of shot-heavy defencemen, usually we picture a gigantic pile of low-percentage shots from the blueline - as Alex Novet has found, not only are these not very dangerous but they don’t actually generate a lot of rebounds either. But that’s not how Dougie does it - he combines quantity and quantity to an extent that’s pretty much unmatched, frequently jumping up into the slot, firing pucks from the half-wall, and even ending up on the left side of the ice.

These chances don’t only arise from his eagerness to join the rush, but his willingness to abandon his point and get in prime scoring position. In games that I watched from this season, Hamilton was more than happy to indulge if he saw a soft area closer to the net. His tendency to take low shots no matter where he is in the zone leads to rebounds which further keep possession going and lead to quality second-chance opportunities. He also displayed an eagerness to pinch and make smaller plays to help his team maintain possession (probably encouraged by his confidence in whoever would be covering for him).

While he certainly isn’t a bad playmaker by any means, he doesn’t make as many passes as you might expect given his offensive numbers. While he and Slavin are very fond of making the defence squirm by trading the puck from point to point, he doesn’t make that many passes that lead directly to shots:

This microstat gap in terms of passing isn’t limited to the offensive zone. Unlike many offensive defencemen he’s not a prolific breakout passer, in part because he’s often the recipient of those passes. As former Marlies assistant coach Jack Han told me:

The contrast between [Hamilton] and former partner Mark Giordano in Calgary was really striking. Giordano wasn't nearly as sound technically as Hamilton. But he is so intense and competitive that he consistenly beat out forecheckers to the puck and made a strong first play in the DZ. Meanwhile Hamilton built speed off the puck to join the rush through the NZ. That's why they were so good together.

At the same time he doesn’t often carry the puck across the offensive blueline, and passes it upon entering the zone even more infrequently. That’s because he appears to be more of a fan of firing pucks off his teammates’ sticks/bodies and into the offensive zone than crossing the line with possession.

Overall, Hamilton’s “process” on offence might seem (and look) a little dubious sometimes, but it’s hard to argue with the overwhelming results.

How Does Dougie Hamilton Play Defence?

The smartass answer to that question would be “he doesn’t,” but that’s not really true. Like most analytical darlings, the main way that Hamilton plays defence is by staying out of his own end as much as possible. Once actually in his own end, he’s not completely lost; in the games that I watched I was quite impressed with his skating (no 6’6 player is going to look graceful) and stick-checking, and he was almost always able to recover when a play went south and often managed to disrupt a potential scoring chance with his stick at the last moment. Turnovers also weren’t a huge issue, especially considering how he plays (he’s hovered around the 30-60th range in terms of giveaways/60 in the past four seasons).

From Hurricanes fans and my own viewing it appeared that he had made major strides in terms of positioning during his abbreviated 2019-20 season; as a result, many of them said they believed that he had taken the next step and established himself as elite this year. This corresponds with a new prominent role on the penalty kill, where he thrived this season.

Hamilton’s physicality (or lack thereof) is a consistent sore spot for a lot of people. I received a lot of feedback from Flames fans specifically who were frustrated by his perceived “softness”, especially relative to his size and what they had expected from him. Jack Han remarked to me that when Hamilton was on Calgary:

I found that he was great in most areas of the game, except going back and retrieving dump-ins or loose pucks under pressure. I thought in those situations he was tentative.

There’s no doubt that physicality isn’t Dougie’s forte - his 2.85 hits/60 this season ranked behind such devastating checkers as Sami Vatanen and Nick Leddy. But while he was nearly as aggressive with his body as he is with his offensive play, he doesn’t completely waste his physical gifts. In games I watched, he frequently used his body to cut off zone entries, rub out guys who would otherwise have been breakout pass recipients, or push opponents away from rebounds. These aren’t as visible as open-ice collisions, and I did notice some timidity along the boards, but they are the kinds of plays that add up over time.

Another major issue that Flames fans in particular had with Dougie was his propensity to take penalties, especially at bad times. This holds up: Hamilton had horrible discipline in Calgary, finishing top five in minor penalties, top two in minor penalties in close games, and first in stick infractions in his two elite seasons with the Flames. This cost his team ~5 goals above replacement in that time.

The penalty type and timing would imply that this was the result of technical flaws in his game in his own end that were magnified when forced to clamp down more defensively - chasing the play or recovering from blown coverage would lead to those trips and hooks. While he’s improved in Carolina (particularly in close games), he’s still a liability to regularly end up in the box.

There’s something else I’d like to mention that’s a little more speculative. Hockey analytics generally operate under the assumption that defencemen are not responsible for the goaltending they get when they’re on the ice - it’s not a blueliner’s fault if his team has Martin Jones instead of Connor Hellebuyck. This is supported by the low repeatability of save percentage relative to teammates found by Garret Hohl in 2016. However, I noticed that in the three full “elite” seasons Hamilton played (2017-2019), he ranked consistently low in terms of his goaltender’s performance when he was on the ice - and lower than his regular D partners Giordano and Slavin.

This could be a product of just plain bad luck or playing against great finishers. But is it possible that xGoals Against undercounted the quality of many of the chances that Hamilton gave up in those seasons - possibly because they were the direct result of high-danger turnovers? We can’t safely conclude that, but I don’t know that we can 100% rule it out.

Conclusion

Dougie Hamilton is one of the NHL’s most unique players. He stands essentially alone in his ability to generate offence from the blueline, combining an effective shot with the willingness and talent to play aggressively and take advantage of opportunities deeper in the offensive zone. The threat he poses forces his opponents to constantly pay attention to his area on the right side of the ice, opening up further opportunities. To a certain extent, he’s able to play this way because of the knowledge that he can rely on an elite defensive defenceman to cover for him if things go south. But this doesn’t mean that he’s solely reliant on his partners - it is no coincidence that his partners have by far their best results while playing with him. The deficiencies in his defensive game - some an unavoidable side effect of the style that drives his success, some legitimate and frustrating - are overwhelmingly counterbalanced by a possession dominance that mostly keeps the puck out of his own end. But that doesn’t mean they don’t show up big time to the eye test.

So returning to the main question: is Dougie Hamilton an elite defenceman? Going into this, I was hoping for a more open and shut answer - or at least the classic “the best defence is a possession-heavy offence” line. But he just had to go and be an enigma. I don’t think there can be any doubt that Hamilton is an elite offensive defenceman - whether with his usual partners or without, every time he steps on the ice his opponents can be sure that they’re going to face a lot more dangerous chances. The defensive stats are a bit misleading in his case - the positive defensive effect he has on his partners can easily and understandably be mistaken for individual skill in that area. At the end of the day, I think he’s been a decent bit overrated by many in the stats community, tempted by his defensive shot metrics to declare that his reputation for poor play in his own end is unearned. However, he is a hugely impactful player who should not be dimissed because of who he plays with, softness, or an interest in museums. Few players tilt the ice like he does, and even if he doesn’t always look great doing it, it makes his team far better.

A recurring theme from the many conversations I had about Hamilton - whether they were with analysts, development coaches, Flames fans, or Hurricanes fans - was the feeling that he had more to give. Whether it was the desire for him to take advantage of his size more, improve his defensive zone positioning, or take fewer avoidable stick infractions, they felt he had untapped potential despite the stats suggesting that he’s near or at the top of the league. He’s taken major strides since coming to Carolina, and if he can continue to refine his game he should be a Norris contender for years to come.