Perhaps the most surprising move of the 2015 offseason was the Calgary Flames’ coup in the Dougie Hamilton sweepstakes.
With the young defenseman likely to get an offer sheet, and numerous clubs seemingly in the mix to bring him to town, the Flames came out of nowhere with a trade that brought Hamilton to Calgary – a move that was thought to bolster the team’s defense to league-leading levels.
However, nearing the home stretch of his first season as a Flame, Hamilton has fallen far short of the expectations placed upon him–though it’s hardly his fault alone.
Much of the young defender’s woes have been the result of the Flames underperforming in general. The club looked decidedly out of sync through the first two months of the season, though they’ve been trending upwards since early December. Hamilton also suffered through an understandable adjustment period that saw him post only five points through all of October and November.
However, with 53 games as a Flame under his belt, that adjustment period should be over by now. And while Hamilton has certainly improved, he still seems to have taken a step back overall this season. A troublesome fact considering he is currently the highest-paid defenseman on the Flames’ roster.
Offensively, Hamilton’s 2015-16 effort has been a tale of two seasons. While October and November were horrid, he’s looked like a different player since December 1, scoring 19 points in 29 games since the calendar turned to the final month of 2015. Thus, the fact that Hamilton’s points per game and assists per game marks (.44 and .29, respectively) are far lower than his 2014-15 averages isn’t much of an issue, as it seems he’s finally managed to right the ship.
Since December 1, he’s scored at a clip of .66 points per game, which in fact ranks higher than his .58 points per game from 2014-15. Hamilton is still shooting far less than he did last season in Boston, however. While he fired pucks at a rate of 2.61 shots per game in 2014-15, that number has dropped to 2.04 this season (1.93 since his offensive resurgence at the start of December).
But what Hamilton has given up in terms of volume shooting, he’s gained in regards to accuracy, as he’s already scored eight goals this season, just two shy of the career-best 10 he posted last year. It seems Hamilton isn’t actually shooting less, he’s just having a difficult time getting his shots through to the net. He ranks 16th on the Flames in terms of the percentage of his shots that make it through to the cage (47 percent), suggesting his offensive contribution could be even greater if he could hone his shooting.
While this offensive resurgence is great, it’s Hamilton’s defensive game that has truly taken a step back this season.
A few different metrics seem to show that Hamilton has regressed slightly from the defensive form he showed in 2014-15. Chief among these is the fact that his possession game has suffered significantly since joining the Flames. He currently holds a Corsi For percentage of only 48.9 percent, marking the first time in his young career he’s been under 55 percent in this category.
That step back in terms of possession is also reflected in his blocked shots, as the fact that Hamilton is being forced back into his own zone much more has led to him already blocking 66 shots this season after totaling only 53 through all of last season. A propensity to give away the puck has likely played a role in this as well, as Hamilton’s 33 giveaways rank as the third-most among all Flames players (and second-most among all Flames defenders).
The young rearguard is also using his size much less (averaging .98 hits per game this season as opposed to 1.47 hits per game in 2014-15) which is significant considering his 6’6″, 210-pound frame could be a game-changer for the Flames, especially in the hard-nosed Pacific Division against heavyweight teams like Anaheim and Los Angeles.
While he hasn’t yet been the home run Calgary had hoped for, a few key things must be considered.
Firstly, at only 22 years old, this season was never going to be the defining one in Hamilton’s tenure with the Flames. That ascension will likely come years down the road, when captain Mark Giordano begins to fade and Hamilton steps up into a bigger role alongside T.J. Brodie. For now, he must simply continue to improve and work towards earning his sizable annual salary (which, to be fair, was a sign of the Flames banking on his future potential rather than his present performance).
Also central to the discussion of Hamilton’s progress is the fact that he is still being incorrectly used by head coach Bob Hartley.
As shown by Micah Blake McCurdy of HockeyViz.com, Hamilton has played primarily with Kris Russell since the early parts of the season, when Brodie’s injury allowed Hamilton to play with Giordano:
There doesn’t seem to be a better option at the moment, but considering the research done on Kris Russell’s overrated and altogether troubling style of play, it’s clear he isn’t the ideal partner for the Flames’ future cornerstone defender.
However, while Hartley may not have a better partner for Hamilton at the moment, what he surely can control is the young blue-liner’s ice-time, and it’s this area that has been most bewildering. Despite Hamilton being one of the club’s best skaters and one of their best offensive talents on the back end, he’s played fewer minutes per game than Giordano, Brodie, Russell, and Wideman. This is understandable for the first two names on that list, but surely not for the latter two.
More troubling is the fact that on the Flames’ power play (currently the second-worst in the league), it’s Wideman who so far leads the team in average time-on-ice, boasting a mark of 3:03 power-play minutes per game while Hamilton’s average is at just 2:01 (fourth-most among Flames defenders). In terms of overall shifts per game, it’s Russell who beats out Hamilton. The shot-blocking extraordinaire somehow ranks first on the team with 31.4 shifts per game, while Hamilton averages only 27.3.
The case can be made that at age 22, Hamilton is due some time on the lower end of the ice-time spectrum, paying his dues while the veterans hold down the fort. But there should be little argument that he has already surpassed Russell in terms of pure skill, both offensively and defensively. This seems to be the case with Wideman as well, though it is now less of an issue due to the veteran’s lengthy suspension.
It seems there’s much work to be done in terms of Hamilton’s acclimation into the Flames organization. Part of that surely rests on his own shoulders, as he’ll need to right the ship defensively and find some more consistency in both ends of the rink, but it’s clear the young star hasn’t been given the role he deserves.
Given Calgary’s struggles and the recent tensions at the Flames’ practices, it wouldn’t be too much of a surprise to see a different coach at the club’s helm next season. Regardless of who it is that leads the coaching staff in 2016-17, it seems a more significant role and a steadier partner will be required to allow Hamilton to truly flourish.