Musing about Hamilton’s slow start with Hurricanes

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When the Carolina Hurricanes traded for Dougie Hamilton, it felt like a near-perfect match. The Hurricanes needed (and maybe still need) finishers to round out a puck-dominant offense; Hamilton’s career has been frustrating in that it feels like he hasn’t always reached his potential.

That frustration is continuing very early on during Hamilton’s first few games with the Hurricanes.

With 39 shots on goal over nine games, Hamilton’s fired the fifth-most pucks on net so far in 2018-19. Hamilton’s generated more SOG than volume-shooters Jack Eichel, David Pastrnak, and Patrik Laine so far this season – not to mention leading all NHL defensemen – and yet he doesn’t have a single goal to show for it.

For a prolific defenseman like Hamilton, his overall stats are frustrating: zero goals and three assists through nine games.

The good news is that the Hurricanes are off to a strong start overall, as they lead the up-and-down Metropolitan Division with 11 points in nine games (5-3-1). While that edge is a little misleading – again, it’s early, and there’s a disparity between games played – it’s a positive sign that Carolina’s been able to shake off frustrations that can come with generating a barrage of chances without finishing many of them. They’re buoyed, for instance, by the continued rise of budding star Sebastian Aho, Forward Version.

Still, Rod Brind’Amour will ultimately be judged by getting the most out of this Hurricanes talent, and optimizing Hamilton stands as one of the greatest opportunities.

So far, irritations from other stops have carried over.

You could argue that Hamilton’s simply the odd-man out. Carolina is brimming with other quality choices as far as right-handed defensemen go, as Hamilton must tussle with Justin Faulk, Brett Pesce, and Trevor van Riemsdyk for different opportunities.

Perhaps that explains why, after averaging a career-high 21:32 TOI last season with Calgary, Hamilton’s down to 19:41 per night with the Hurricanes. (That average oddly matches his mark from 2016-17, and is very close to his 19:46 average from 2015-16.)

Again, the Hurricanes are loaded with defensive talent, so Brind’Amour can pick and choose who he wants to roll out in which situations. Pesce, for instance, would likely be the best guy for tougher defensive assignments.

The point of debate comes on the power play, as would-be perfect minutes are being eaten up by Faulk, a right-handed defenseman many expected to see traded to break up this logjam in Carolina.

Through nine games in 2018-19, Faulk is easily the power-play minutes leader, quarterbacking the top unit while averaging 3:37 PP TOI per game. Hamilton isn’t even the Hurricanes’ second-ranked defenseman, as his 2:18 comes up a bit short compared to Jaccob Slavin‘s 2:26 per contest. Hamilton’s down from his power-play average from 2017-18 with Calgary, and that’s with a Norris-level defenseman in Mark Giordano leading the way.

Brind’Amour and his staff should be asking this question: “Are we leaving goals off the table by putting Faulk on the top unit instead of Hamilton?”

With a 12.1-percent success rate, the Hurricanes currently own the fourth-least efficient power play in the NHL. They were the 10th-worst group last season. That’s not all on Faulk, yet the American-born defenseman also topped all Hurricanes in power-play ice time last season. His modest recent totals (Faulk took until Carolina’s last game to find the net, and only generated 31 points last season) make you wonder if he’s better suited for the secondary unit.

Now, sure, keeping Faulk as the power play QB gives Carolina the opportunity to try to pump up his trade value, if that’s the wider aim. And it’s not like Faulk is terrible he ranked sixth among defensemenin such a role; with 48 goals from 2014-15 through 2016-17.

When you look at per-minute stats from sites like Corsica Hockey, it’s enticing to ponder what Hamilton might be able to accomplish if a team truly unleashes his potential over great opportunities.

Maybe Brind’Amour will look at zero goals and three assists over nine games and believe that Hamilton isn’t delivering. And it’s fair to call this disappointing, particularly if you drafted Dougie high in your fantasy leagues.

The Hurricanes owe it to themselves to give Hamilton more of a chance, especially on the man advantage. The pay-off could be significant: combining this team’s stout even-strength work with, ideally, a power play that isn’t in the bottom-third of the league.

That’s even scarier than dealing with Hamilton’s one-timers.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.