Dougie Hamilton is the Best Defenseman in the NHL
Why I believe the Hurricanes' blueliner is the best player that his position has to offer
Due to the stoppage of the NHL season almost 3 months ago, there have been no shortage of fans and analysts alike coming out with various opinionated lists. Often, we’ve seen top-20 lists at each position, awards power rankings, and mock Olympic rosters, and as a result, we’ve seen many different opinions on said lists.
Dougie Hamilton doesn’t get nearly enough credit for how good of a hockey player he is - why should he? He wasn’t near the top of the points leaderboard thanks to a crushing injury he suffered in January - but I think he’s the best defenseman in the NHL. Obviously, to be considered as such, he would have to be very good, nee, elite, in a lot of areas of the game. He is, though. He’s only 26 years old, and he somehow only makes $5.75M per season, and he’ll be a free agent after the 2020-21 season. When that time comes, I believe he’ll be the best player to hit free agency since John Tavares - provided he doesn’t sign an extension. Either way, he’ll get paid a ton.
You won’t be seeing a top-20 defenseman list here, but I will be using my visualizations to support my latest hot take of the sports stoppage, which is that Dougie Hamilton is the best at his position in the sport right now.
I’m not saying that Hamilton is the surefire Norris winner this year - because, again, he got hurt - but over the last two seasons, he has proven to be consistent enough in his play to prove to me that it simply doesn’t get better than him when it comes to NHL defensemen. He combines even-strength play in all three zones with an ability to perform on special teams better than any other blueliner in hockey. Let me explain further:
As you can see here, there isn’t anything Hamilton can claim to be weak at. He’s better offensively than he is defensively, generating an impressive amount of shots, and shots of quality at that. He got the results to show for it as well. Defensively, he’s decent at defending the blue line, and is very good from a suppression standpoint in his own zone. He passes the puck frequently in the neutral zone, and is above-average at entering the offensive zone and exiting the defensive zone. On the powerplay, he’s just lethal, doing damage with an excellent volume of quality shots and passes. On the penalty kill, he’s better than most at preventing shot attempts to come against his team. He’s one of the most irreplaceable players in hockey in every category there is, and ate some of the toughest minutes in the league in terms of the quality of the opposition, and for how frequently he was deployed. He checks all of the boxes, and for it, he has a market value of over $13M according to my model. But this is only 2019-20, and an injury-shortened one at that. He only played 47 games. How could we trust such a small sample size? To call him the best defenseman in the NHL, wouldn’t he have to have been elite in years prior?
Per Evolving-Hockey’s standings points above replacement model, Hamilton has been on a mostly-undisrupted upward trend ever since he stepped into the league as a young 20-year-old with Boston. He finally saw the results that he’s been capable of for years now, which puts into perspective how bad the timing of his injury was. Jared Spurgeon is the only defenseman with a higher xSPAR since 2017-18. Morgan Rielly and Shea Theodore were the only defeensemen with a higher xSPAR in 2018-19. Jared Spurgeon was the only defenseman with a higher xSPAR in 2019-20. Hamilton was 12th among defensemen in SPAR in 2019-20 despite missing over 20 games due to his injury. When it comes to combining even-strength offense, even-strength defense, powerplay offense, shorthanded defense, and taking and drawing penalties, very few can match Hamilton. Let’s go a bit more in-depth into the specifics of his game:
For someone who provides as much offense as Hamilton does, it’s quite remarkable that he manages to be as good at defense as he does. Few high-danger attempts go against Carolina when he’s on the ice, and he exits the zone well too. It’s also quite rare to be above-average at everything there is to do with defense, like Hamilton is - of the 224 defensemen in the NHL with over 100 minutes of ice time, just under 30 rank above the 50th percentile in every statistic listed on this visual.
You may be wondering: Why is Hamilton so special? There are other defensemen who are elite offensively that are also good defensively. The thing is, though, while hockey is obviously played predominantly at even-strength, there are other things that Hamilton is great at. I went over this in his player card, but I do not exaggerate when I say that you could deploy Hamilton anywhere on the ice, in any situation, and you could expect him to perform in said role better than pretty much anyone in the league. Let me elaborate.
Something that I, and I assume a lot of other viz creators do, is total player’s percentiles in all of the stats I use as an easy way of finding some of the best all-around contributors in the league. For example, Montreal’s Phillip Danault had the highest total percentile in 5v5 RAPM statistics than anyone in the NHL this past season: He was in the 94th percentile in CF/60, 98th in xGF/60, 97th in GF/60, 98th in CA/60, and 95th in xGA/60 (which you would all see if I made a visual for him, but this is about our lord and savior Douglas Hamilton, so I won’t), and that equals a total percentile of 482.
Among NHL defensemen, Hamilton was 4th in total percentile at even-strength. He was 10th on the powerplay, 19th on the penalty kill, and 1st in xSPAR. The last one is extremely impressive, considering how he missed 20 games due to injury, which equals around 300 minutes in ice time. Expected standings points above replacement is a counting stat, not a rate one, meaning that Hamilton somehow managed to rank 1st among all defensemen in total percentile in that statistic despite the fact that he played 20 games fewer than all other defensemen in the NHL in top-pair roles.
Defensemen at Even-Strength, 2019-20. Hamilton ranks 4th in total percentile.
Defensemen on the Powerplay, 2019-20. Hamilton ranks 10th in total percentile.
Defensemen on the Penalty Kill, 2019-20. Hamilton ranks 19th in total percentile.
NHL Skaters, xSPAR, 2019-20. Hamilton ranks first among defensemen in total percentile.
Here’s the kicker: Not a single NHL defenseman in 2019-20 ranked in at least the top 20 in total percentile in all of the above categories, not one…except Dougie Hamilton. He is elite at everything, no matter where he’s deployed. Not only was he that excellent overall in 2019-20, but he’s been consistently elite for years now.
My 2019-20 market value formula is based off the average of players’ GAR and xGAR in the categories of even-strength offense, even-strength defense, powerplay offense, and shorthanded defense, dating back to 2017-18. Each of the last 3 seasons are weighted evenly in the model. No NHL defenseman has a higher market value than Dougie Hamilton’s $13.4M, according to my model. The two runners-up are Victor Hedman, who sits at just under $13M, and Jared Spurgeon, who sits at $12.4M. Hamilton has been the most irreplaceable defenseman in the NHL since 2017-18, and he should make the most money of any blueliner in the league. For even more context, here’s how he stacks up against NHL.com’s top 4 Norris picks for 2019-20 (as of May 20).
He’s got a leg up on everyone from an all-around standpoint, especially Carlson, who is still likely going to win the award in spite of his defensive deficiencies. He’s superior offensively in terms of shot quality to everyone here except Pietrangelo. Defensively, he sits atop the pack. If it weren’t for his injury, he’d be the slam-dunk winner in my eyes.
Despite the time he missed in 2019-20, Dougie Hamilton has established himself as the best defenseman in the NHL. He’s gifted offensively, very good defensively, elite on the powerplay and penalty kill, and overall, no other defenseman in the league can claim to be as effective as he has been this season, or in any of the past three. He’s criminally underpaid, and is extremely underrated by hockey fans and media all over the continent. There is no excuse to overlook him any more than we already have - it just doesn’t get better than Hamilton when it comes to NHL defensemen right now.