Dougie Hamilton is a luxury that the Carolina Hurricanes can neither afford to overpay nor that they could live without.
Hamilton is in the prime of his career and it’s his chance at a major payday. He wants to maximize the money he will make, as he should.
The issue for the Hurricanes though, is that they are already a team spending to the cap and with more and more contracts and paydays coming due every year, a long-term deal may become a hurdle for the Canes down the road.
However, with the team’s current construction and looking at the surrounding market, there is no replacing Hamilton’s value.
If the team lets him walk, then they are taking a significant step backwards in terms of competing for another Stanley Cup.
No matter what side of the Dougie divide you fall under, you can’t argue with that.
The team has a bonafide top-six, a solid top four on the back end and a promising goaltender who put up some of the best numbers in the league.
They are currently in a legitimate competitive window, but how long will that last?
Next year, the contracts of the entire second line — Vincent Trocheck, Nino Niederreiter and Martin Necas — expire. Can they bring all of them back?
The year after that only sees Jordan Staal’s contract expire, but following that you see Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, Brett Pesce and Brady Skjei’s contracts running out.
So in three years time, the contracts of the entire top-six forward group and three of the top-four on the backend are gone and there isn’t going to be a shot at bringing all of those players back.
At that point, you’re betting on either developing higher-end prospects, signing a big name free agent, or making a huge trade deal.
So what you’re essentially doing is kicking the figurative can down the road for another time.
But there is no promise that the window will be as open that year.
Winning a cup involves a lot of risk. You have to be willing to go all in if you actually think you can win it all, and the Hurricanes should believe that they can win it all. They are a team at that level.
A team that takes no risks is a team willing to be a mediocre fringe team for years to come.
The opportunity to win a cup needs an all hands-on-deck approach from the front office, to the coaching staff and down to the players on the ice.
In that regard, signing Dougie Hamilton is the best move for today albeit a risk for tomorrow.
Hamilton is arguably the most offensively talented defenseman that the Hurricanes have ever had.
His hockey sense and awareness in the offensive zone is rivaled by very few in the NHL and his ability to find soft spots in coverage and get shots through traffic is what makes him such an effective player.
He isn’t wowing you with his skating or stickhandling — although he does have quite a few highlight reel plays showcasing his talents in those areas — but it’s really his sense on when and where to push.
He is also the only defenseman to reach double digit goals in each of the last seven seasons and he has the third highest expected goals total (31.3) among defenseman for the past three seasons combined according to MoneyPuck.com.
Even if we take just this year, where Hamilton had a notably slow start to the season, he still finished seventh in total points by defensemen (42) — Tyson Barrie had the most with 48 — and fifth in goals (10) — Jakob Chycrun led the way with 18.
Hamilton also helped take what used to be an embarrassment of a power play and help usher it into new heights.
You can harp on the importance of 5-on-5 scoring, but special teams are of ever increasing importance in today’s game, just take the Tampa Bay Lightning for example, who thrive off their elite power play.
There have also been some thoughts on his lack of playoff scoring, but most Hurricanes not named Sebastian Aho, haven’t had the most consistent playoff scoring the past three seasons. In fact Hamilton is sixth overall in playoff scoring for the team over that span even despite coming off of a broken leg last year.
The fact is that Hamilton is one-of-a-kind offensive talent. The Canes game plan around him, and he’s a huge reason why their blueline had the second most 5-on-5 scoring chances produced on average this season according to Corey Sznajder’s data.
If you take a look back at the last decade of cup winners, they were nearly all backstopped by elite offensive defensemen. Names like Victor Hedman, Alex Pietrangelo, John Carlson, Kris Letang and Drew Doughty.
Hamilton belongs in that same vein of defensemen.
Now on the flip side of the two-way coin, is the defensive side of the game.
Hamilton is obviously not an elite defensive talent, but the idea that Hamilton is a bad defender is one that doesn’t hold water when you take a deeper look at his game.
Does he get caught out of position a bit too much? Sure, but that doesn’t make him a bad defender. Hockey is a two-way game and sometimes you are going to get burned when you push for offense.
Hamilton is a good skater, but he isn’t the fastest skater and he more than likely lost a half or quarter step from his broken leg which may seem to magnify the issues with him getting back into the defensive zone, but to hold him back would suppress his unmatched offensive talents.
Despite what perception of Hamilton may be for onlookers, the fact is that he was trusted with the third most ice-time among Hurricanes skaters this season with his average ice time being only 16 seconds less than Jaccob Slavin and five seconds less than Pesce.
If he couldn’t defend, the coaching staff wouldn’t be trusting him with those big minutes and especially with close games and on penalty kills.
In fact, Hamilton is a much better defender with Carolina than when he initially joined the team.
Hamilton leads all Canes defensemen at 5-on-5 in CF% (56.03%), GF% (62.12), xGF% (56.55%), SC% (56.47%) with the lowest goals against and high danger chances against among the top-four.
And all of those numbers were better than Jaccob Slavin’s — his primary defensive partner. Slavin is an elite defenseman. That’s not what’s being questioned. But the idea that he is dragging Hamilton’s defensive game along with him is a bit of hyperbole.
It’s more actually the fact that the pair is just a really strong defensive duo who feed off one another.
Slavin helps Hamilton, but just as much does Hamilton help Slavin.
One point where Hamilton is a hindrance, though, is with his penalty differential.
Hamilton takes a lot of penalties that seem to result from him chasing a play or simply not thinking. Trips, holds and high-sticks highlight the majority of his infractions and for a defenseman who likes to activate, he isn’t drawing many calls.
His -12 penalty differential ranked as the ninth worst during the regular season and his -4 differential during the playoffs was the third worst — with the worst being his buddy Andrei Svechnikov.
The Canes will need Hamilton to be a much more controlled player if they do bring him back because while the Canes’ elite penalty kill had bailed them out many times before, we saw penalties spell their doom in the Tampa Bay series.
The reality of it all is that the Hurricanes are between a rock and a hard place when it comes to Hamilton.
While not a perfect player, his value is just incredibly high and his role within the team’s overall game is unique just to him.
Yet, Carolina can really handcuff themselves in the future if they’re competing with bank breaking offers from other teams around the league.
The harshest reality is that they have to match them.
There is no reality where the Hurricanes are a better team next season without Dougie Hamilton.
His value is simply just irreplaceable.
Contracts aren’t formulated on what’s best for the team or what the intrinsic value of the player is. It’s based on the ever increasing market value and what their peers around the league are getting paid and offered.
Even if Hamilton might only be worth X amount of dollars, it’ll cost Y to keep him. That’s the nature of the sport.
The Canes won’t find anybody on the UFA market anywhere near his talent level, they can’t replace him internally, nor should they be looking to purge resources to land someone who would just do what Hamilton does already.
They have to pay him.
Losing Hamilton lowers Carolina’s competitive window and for a team with a wide-open window, that shouldn’t be an acceptable approach.
And hey, a Stanley Cup makes any contract worth it in the end.