For the better part of three seasons, the Carolina Hurricanes have had one of the best defensive pairings in hockey.
With Dougie Hamilton and Jaccob Slavin anchoring the blue line, the Hurricanes have gone from a bottom-dwelling team to one with real championship aspirations after three consecutive playoff berths.
Hamilton is scheduled to hit the free-agent market later this month, but his future with the team will likely be decided much sooner than that. Ryan wrote about how important Dougie is to the team’s success, but today I’m writing about an oft-discussed talking point.
Does Slavin make Hamilton look better than he actually is? Without Slavin, is Hamilton anywhere near as good as he has been these past few years?
Before we dive into the numbers, I want to make it clear that this isn’t a commentary on the “should they re-sign Hamilton” discussion. We’ve had more than enough of that. This is a breakdown of the numbers when Hamilton and Slavin play together versus when they aren’t playing together, as there has been discussion surrounding this topic for quite some time now.
The TLDR version is that Hamilton is one of the best defensemen in hockey with or without Slavin and Slavin is one of the best defensemen in hockey with or without Hamilton, but the two complement each other very well and make each other better as a result.
Hamilton’s offensive abilities combined with Slavin’s overall game combine to make up one of the best and most-relied upon defensive pairings in the NHL.
Since the beginning of the 2019-20 season, Slavin and Hamilton have logged 1,470:06 of 5-on-5 ice time together. They’re the fourth-most-used pairing in the NHL over that span. Among the 34 d-pairings in the NHL with 750 or more minutes of ice time since the start of 2019-20, Slavin and Hamilton rank first in corsi-for percentage, second in goals-for percentage, second in expected goals-for percentage, first in scoring chances-for percentage, and third in total defensive zone starts.
Had Hamilton not gotten injured during the 2019-20 season, he and Slavin would likely be the most-used defensive pairing in the league at 5-on-5 over the last two seasons.
All of those numbers back up what we already know, but who makes who better and to what extent?
It’s actually a pretty easy question to answer, and the numbers paint a somewhat surprising picture.
Hamilton and Slavin since 2019-20
|Slavin with Hamilton||1470.06||57.11||61.76||57.12||57.48|
|Slavin without Hamilton||738.25||50.57||54.65||50.38||52.57|
|Hamilton without Slavin||250.19||56.04||68||59.58||59.34|
There are a few misconceptions that follow the Slavin/Hamilton dynamic.
A common one is that, in addition to Slavin bearing more defensive responsibility, he and Pesce are used for tougher defensive matchups. While Slavin and Pesce are used sparingly for late-game defensive matchups, their total 5-on-5 ice time together is just 203:34 over the last two seasons. That averages out to about 1:45 per game across the 113 games that both players played in, including the 14-game stretch in 2019-20 between Hamilton’s leg injury in Columbus on Jan. 16, 2020 and Pesce’s shoulder injury on Feb. 22, 2020 when Hamilton wasn’t in the lineup.
While Pesce is occasionally used in Hamilton’s place for preferred defensive matchups, his quality of competition at 5-on-5 is much lower than Hamilton’s. According to TopDownHockey’s data and JFreshHockey’s visuals, Hamilton ranks in the 72nd percentile in quality of competition over the last three seasons while Pesce ranks in the 60th percentile. Slavin ranks in the 73rd percentile, a small uptick from Hamilton.
So the existing narrative that Hamilton is sheltered from tougher matchups isn’t reflected in the actual matchups he faces.
When Hamilton is away from Slavin, his numbers actually improve. His on-ice goals-for rate jumps by more than 6%, and his expected goals-for and scoring chances-for rates increase by roughly 2%, albeit in a small sample size of 250:19. That’s a small number over the course of two seasons, though.
The biggest discrepancy between Hamilton and the other two defensemen is the quality of on-ice teammates, not the quality of competition. Over the last three seasons, Hamilton ranks in the 93rd percentile in quality of teammates while Slavin ranks in the 77th percentile and Pesce ranks in the 66th percentile.
Part of the reason why Pesce’s quality of teammates rating is so much lower is that Brady Skjei and Joel Edmundson, the two defensemen he’s seen the most ice time with over the last two seasons, are far from analytical darlings and were in many cases being carried by Pesce at 5-on-5.
Let’s circle back to Slavin and Hamilton, though.
There isn’t a statistical category that doesn’t worsen for Slavin when he is away from Hamilton. From corsi to goals for and goal against, to expected goal share, to scoring chances for and against, Slavin’s numbers are worse when he isn’t playing with Hamilton. The slightly tougher matchups surely play a role, but the disparity in the quality of competition doesn’t come anywhere close to equaling the disparity in his on-ice numbers.
This isn’t me saying that Hamilton carries Slavin. However, I am saying that the idea that Hamilton is a liability without Slavin is at best misguided and at worst dishonest. For all the deserved credit that Slavin gets for helping Hamilton, there should be credit given to Hamilton for elevating Slavin’s game and making him a more dangerous 200-foot player with a higher ceiling.
With all of those numbers in mind, there are a few things you can confidently take away.
- Together, Slavin and Hamilton are among the best defensive pairings in the NHL.
- Away from Slavin, Hamilton drives more offense and has better defensive metrics, but his quality of competition is slightly lower.
- Away from Hamilton, Slavin draws slightly tougher matchups and his metrics are worse.
- Slavin’s defensive presence aids Hamilton, and the chemistry that they’ve developed over the course of multiple seasons elevates both of them to be better all-around players. However, the opposite is also true - Slavin is better in almost every category when he plays with Hamilton.
- Slavin and Pesce get assigned the occasional tough late-game matchup, especially on home ice, but that doesn't make up a significant portion of either player’s total ice time at 5-on-5.
The idea that Slavin makes Hamilton better is not unfounded. If you watch them play, it’s obvious that Slavin’s game compliments Hamilton’s game. That being said, it’s simply wrong to say that Hamilton’s game doesn’t do the same thing for Slavin.
They are outstanding defensemen when separated, but together they consistently reach another level and have been nothing short of an elite pairing that takes on tough competition and routinely outplays their opponents while doing a great job of limiting chances against relative to the number of scoring chances they help generate.
The moral of the story is that Slavin doesn’t carry Hamilton, and Hamilton doesn’t carry Slavin.
If Hamilton ends up somewhere else this summer, I think he will continue to be a top-flight defenseman, and the same goes for Slavin, but I have a hard time seeing either of them consistently playing at the same level that they did over the last few seasons.
Data used in this piece came from NaturalStatTrick, JFreshHockey, and TopDownHockey.