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Today’s post was written by C.J. TURTORO. You can find C.J. on Twitter @CJTDevil.
It’s not that it’s totally unwarranted to criticize the New Jersey Devils for their big free agent signing this offseason -- Dougie Hamilton.
Signing a big-time free agent that’s older than your core, before you’ve locked in said core to long-term deals, is a true risk, after all. So, it’s not unreasonable there are some detractors on TSN and among journos on Twitter.
What is not reasonable is what some of them are saying: “Dougie Hamilton needs a reliable defensive partner” (e.g. Mike Futa).
It’s a galaxy brain take that is patently anti-empirical, at least in the past half-decade. Dougie has had some excellent partners in his career (Jaccob Slavin, Mark Giordano, Zdeno Chara, etc.), which is probably where this idea comes from.
And, if you look at his numbers with and without Chara in Boston, I could understand how you’d come to that opinion. Maybe even his first season in Calgary. But, in the five years since then, he’s been every bit as important to his partner defensively as his partner has been to him.
What is not up for debate is that Dougie is an elite offensive driver that consistently amplifies his partners in terms of pushing the play forward. What is being claimed by some however, is that his “soft” playing style and offensive tendencies get him in trouble in the defensive zone and so he becomes a liability without a reliable defensive partner like Slavin, Giordano, or Chara.
Like most young defenders, he did struggle in his earliest seasons. But we have modern-day Dougie, so let’s examine the efficacy of this claim by searching for evidence of what you’d expect to happen in his last two stints -- Calgary and Carolina.
What should we see if Dougie needs help defensively?
We’d expect to see evidence that his partner is responsible for reducing the amount of goals allowed, the amount of dangerous shots allowed, or average quality of shots allowed. Evidence would look like Dougie’s defensive numbers improving when paired, and the partners worsening.
We’d expect Dougie to struggle relative to his teammates in “defensive” shifts. His ratio of scoring chances, possession, and goals in those shifts should be notably worse than his partners, and unremarkable among his team as a whole when looking at defensive zone shifts, or shifts where goal prevention is the primary purpose.
Claim #1: Dougie’s partners should help his defensive numbers, and he should hurt theirs.
Over the past 6 seasons (according to Natural Stat Trick’s Line Tool), Dougie has substantially benefited in terms of goals and chances allowed when playing with his primary defensive partner.
However, his partners have improved just as much in those stats when playing with him. So did his defense improve when playing with Giordano and Slavin? Yes. Of course it did. They are two of the best even-strength defenders in the NHL -- they are each in the top 15 in terms of even-strength defensive value during that time.
But those guys improved just as much defensively with Dougie as Dougie did with them. So what does that mean? Transitive property folks.
As a rebuttal some may say that, whether it’s because of more favorable shifts, or just better offense, these numbers may be giving Dougie some defensive credit when really it’s just his adeptness at playing “keep-away”.
In other words, he may be good at preventing possession from happening in the first place, but bad at reducing the danger of that possession once it occurs, and that’s where his partner comes in.
If that were the case, we’d expect to see the shots he allows be very low, but the danger of those shots to be high. In fact, we see just the opposite.
On average, the shots Dougie allowed away from his partner were worth 4.11 goals per 100 shot attempts -- almost identical to the 4.09 allowed with his partner.
However, when the partner played away from Dougie, the average danger went up by about 5%. So the typical shot allowed when Dougie was on the ice was less dangerous than the typical shot allowed by his all-world defensive partners.
The tl;dr for this section is that Dougie’s defensive numbers improve from good to great with the elite defensive partner. But he helps them defensively just as much as they help him, and in exactly the ways you wouldn’t expect him to if he were a DZ liability.
Claim #2: He should struggle in “defensive” shifts
The following chart is from PuckIQ and it depicts Carolina defender performance in defensive zone shift situations. DF is “Dangerous Fenwick”, which is a weighted shot metric not too different from xG. It only goes back to 2017, so we’ll just look at Carolina.
Again, we can see that there is some clear evidence for the “Dougie’s partners excel defensively” claim -- Jacob Slavin leads the Hurricanes in DFF% in defensive zone situations. However, once again, there is substantially less evidence for the claim “and Dougie would struggle without them.”
Dougie is #2 behind only Slavin in terms of danger ratio, and he actually leads the team in possession (45.05 CF%) and ties Slavin at even in goal differential. So Dougie is slightly better in possession, the same in goals, and slightly worse in scoring chance ratio than Slavin in the circumstance that should benefit Slavin the most, were the claims about Dougie’s DZ game to be true.
Another circumstance in which you might think a defensively inept defender may struggle is in holding a lead. When your team is winning by just one goal, teams typically “turtle” -- they play much less aggressively in the hopes of clamping down defensively.
Let’s look at Carolina’s defencemen over the past three seasons in terms of performance when leading, according to NaturalStatTrick.
Among Carolina’s 10 defenders with 50+ games in that time; Dougie is 2nd in CF% (56.22%), which means he still dominating possession; 1st in terms of xGF% (56.57) which means he’s still dominating chances; 3rd in terms of xGA, SCA, and HCDA rates, which means he’s preventing dangerous opportunities; and 1st in terms of GA rate (1.99), which means he’s allowing very few of them to go in.
Here’s the kicker -- he’s better than Slavin in every single one of those categories.
Dougie Hamilton has been advertised by many Devils fans as a long-term solution to their perennial defensive woes.
Detractors consider Dougie to be more of a specialist -- excelling in offensive situations, but relying on his string of exceptionally talented defensive partners to bail him out of dangerous situations.
While the jury is very much out on if Dougie can maintain his contract value over the duration of the deal, the reason has nothing to do with shortcomings in Dougie’s current game.
He has driven his partners offensively, and is no more reliant on them defensively than they are on him. His team gets better results with him in defensive situations – like DZ starts and shifts played with a lead – than almost any other defencemen.
Criticisms of Dougie’s defensive ability are obsolete, as he’s not experienced those struggles in a half-decade. So, as it turns out, upon further investigation, the assessments of his stand-alone defensive value as quantified by Evolving-Hockey (EVD) and Hockeyviz (xG Impact) below hold up.
He’s an elite offensive defender and perfectly capable of holding his own defensively, regardless of partner.