Devils’ Hamilton Anchoring Defense in Bounce-Back Season
When the New Jersey Devils signed Dougie Hamilton to a 7-year, $63 million contract in the summer of 2021, fans of the team were justifiably excited. The team had been searching for a franchise defenseman for the past several years, and it felt different to see a top free agent choose New Jersey as their long-term home. The first year of Hamilton in a Devils sweater was marred by injuries and inconsistency, but to start the 2022-23 season, he’s returned to his old form and has become the face of the defensive core that the Devils have wanted for a long time.
Pressure Throughout Hamilton’s NHL Tenure
Hamilton is no stranger to having pressure put on him right away. He was a top prospect in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, where the Boston Bruins selected him ninth overall – they had that pick thanks to a trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs that sent Phil Kessel north of the border. Hamilton made his Bruins debut during the 2012-13 season, where he scored 16 points in 42 games and finished 11th in Calder Trophy voting. He was also part of a Bruins team that went all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, ultimately coming up short against the Chicago Blackhawks. In those playoffs, he had three points while playing in all but one game of the team’s first two series against the Maple Leafs and New York Rangers.
Hamilton spent three years with the Bruins before a trade sent him to the Calgary Flames, where his game continued to improve. After another three years, he came back to the Eastern Conference with the Carolina Hurricanes, where he became one of the league’s best defensemen. After two impressive seasons of 40 points in 47 games and 40 points in 55 games, the latter of which saw a fourth-place finish in Norris voting as well as an All-Star Game appearance, Hamilton was hitting free agency at the right time. Entering the offseason as one of the best free agents on the market, he made the surprising decision to sign a long-term deal with the Devils.
Entering New Jersey with high expectations, Hamilton experienced hit-or-miss results in his first year with the Black and Red. While he had 30 points in 62 games, New Jersey’s offense was not as strong as Carolina’s. A broken jaw stalled his season; before the injury, he had 20 points in 29 games and was on pace to set a career-high in that category. He had 92 blocks and 82 hits last season, showing that even while he was not 100 percent, he could still be a physical presence. He also averaged 21:13 on ice per game, second only to Damon Severson.
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Even though there were some positives, Hamilton’s first season with the Devils was viewed as a disappointment. He had 197 shots on goal during 2021-22, only ten more than his last season in Carolina despite playing in seven more games. He was scoring at a rate of 0.48 points per game, which was his lowest since his first year with the Hurricanes. He had 11 goals created, which closely resembles his time with the Bruins before he became one of the league’s top defensemen. Once again, the pressure was on him to put up scoring numbers and become a defenseman that the Devils could build around.
Hamilton’s Back to His Old Form
Hamilton has rebounded in a big way to start the 2022-23 season, setting the tone for the Devils’ defense during their impressive 12-3 start to the season. Sure, he has 12 points in 15 games and is first among defensemen on the team, but there’s more when it comes to his successful play. Last season on the power play, Hamilton had eight points. This year, not even a quarter of the way into the season, he already has six and is on pace for over 30, which would be a new career-high by a wide margin. Ironically enough, he has the exact same amount of goals, assists, and points on the man advantage as he does 5-on-5 (two goals, four assists, six points for each).
“Just how comfortable I feel on the ice, it’s night and day,” Hamilton said on his start to the season. “I try not to think about it too much, I just try to keep getting better, keep improving and keep going.”
Related: Devils Need a Healthy Hamilton for the 2022-23 Season
Hamilton’s per-game totals have also seen an uptick from the past few seasons. His 3.73 shots per game are the highest of his career, even with his success in Carolina. His shot percentage so far this season is 7.1, and it would be even higher had the overtime winner against the Ottawa Senators not been tipped in by Nico Hischier. He has 0.27 goals and 0.8 points per game, which is second only to his monster 2019-20 season with the Canes. Adjusted for an 82-game schedule, Hamilton would have 21 goals, 42 assists, and 63 points, all of which would be the highest numbers of the 29-year-old’s career.
The former top-10 pick is also seeing a sharp rise in his rate metrics as well. His points per 60 minutes is 2.2, and his shots per 60 minutes is 10.3, among his career best. These numbers rise even greater on the man advantage. While his S/60 is 12.8 and in line with the rest of his time in the NHL, his goals per 60 minutes on the power play is 2.1 and his P/60 is 6.4. Both of these are impressive numbers and show what a force he can be while the Devils are in the zone with an extra skater on the ice.
The Devils as a team are playing better when he’s on the ice as well. The Devils have 23 total goals, eight of them on the power play, with Hamilton skating. Even more notable is the fact that while on the penalty kill, the opposing team has not found the back of the net when he has been on the ice. His goals created per game have also seen a rise, going from 0.17 in 2021-22 to 0.29 this season. Adjusted for a full 82-game season, he is on pace for 23 goals created, which would be a new career high for him.
Hamilton’s start to the season has not only matched the Devils’ expectations, but exceeded them. While the Devils have not been at the same level as Carolina over the past few seasons, this year is unlike anything the team has seen in recent years. The Devils as a whole have been playing other-worldly, and during the team’s nine-game win streak, he has recorded 10 of his 12 points. He is also the perfect complement to Jonas Siegenthaler, his partner on defense. While Hamilton puts up the offensive numbers, Siegenthaler is one of the best pure defenders on the team, and it looks like the pair will be together for the next several years.
The Devils paid Hamilton expecting Norris-level production, and he is certainly in that conversation a month into the season. For the first time in his career, he should have a long-term home with the Devils, and should he continue his 63-point pace, his team should reach the playoffs – something he is very familiar with.
Erik Johnsen is one of the NJ Devils writer for The Hockey Writers. He is also a writer for Triple Play Newsletter. Erik is a 2022 Rider University graduate, and co-hosts a podcast called Too Many Men.