With Dougie Hamilton’s future with the Carolina Hurricanes muddled with uncertainty, the team might have to come to grips with the idea of looking elsewhere for a replacement.
Replacing a player like Hamilton will not be easy. In fact, it might be impossible in the short term, but there are options worth exploring.
Today, we’re going to take a look at the free-agent market, the trade market and the in-house options that the Hurricanes could pursue this offseason in hopes of remaining a Stanley Cup contender, should Hamilton play hockey elsewhere this fall.
This year’s class of UFA defensemen doesn’t inspire much confidence. If there’s a guy you’re going to dish out big money to over a longer-term, it’s going to be Hamilton and only Hamilton.
Perhaps a team will give a pricey long-term deal to Tyson Barrie, who is coming off a season wherein he led all NHL defensemen in points, but it absolutely shouldn’t be the Hurricanes.
The 30-year-old defenseman has been downright atrocious defensively for the better part of the past five seasons and hasn’t even been a positive driver of offensive scoring chances at 5-on-5 in four of the past five seasons.
In fairness to Barrie, he can absolutely run a power play if he has talent around him, which he would in Carolina, and he is a good puck-mover in transition. So there certainly is a good bit of skill there.
Unfortunately, for every offensive chance he plays a part in creating, he gives up back-breaking chances the other way and makes mistakes that essentially make his offense irrelevant.
His big 2021 season certainly helped his market value, but there’s an obvious reason as to why he produced the way he did.
Barrie and McDavid
|Barrie w/ McDavid||557.28||52.99||55.07||51.03||52.19|
|Barrie w/o McDavid||402.28||45.85||47.06||44.73||43.68|
|McDavid w/o Barrie||380.18||57.93||60.47||64.85||60.92|
It’s truly impressive that Barrie, a fixture in Edmonton’s top-four, consistently made the Oilers worse when he was on the ice with McDavid compared to when McDavid was out there without him.
There isn’t a player who benefitted more from Connor McDavid last season than Tyson Barrie, especially now that he is a UFA coming off of a 48-point season. Before he benefitted from McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in Edmonton, he benefitted from Auston Matthews in Toronto and Nathan MacKinnon in Colorado. He has spent well over half of his ice time over the last three seasons with those superstar players on the ice.
Barrie has been perhaps the very worst defensive liability in hockey over the last handful of seasons. If you have a problem with how Hamilton plays defense, Barrie will show you what real defensive ineptitude looks like.
All of that was echoed in the Norris Trophy voting. While Norris voting is far from being a definitive way of grading defensemen, even the voters for the best defensemen in the NHL shunned Barrie. He was the first player in the 67-year history of Norris Trophy voting to not garner a single vote despite leading all defensemen in scoring.
The Barrie contract could be the most dangerous deal made this offseason, and the Hurricanes need to stay far away from it.
There are better bets in the UFA market, even if none of them will come close to replacing the impact of Hamilton on its own.
Alec Martinez was a good driver of offense at 5-on-5 in Vegas this season and posted a career-high 32 points. He is 33, though, and while his offense has trended up since going to Vegas, his defense has declined. He has also been a sizeably negative PK impact over the last three seasons.
Mike Reilly is among my favorite UFA options outside of re-signing Hamilton. He didn’t score a single goal this past season, but he posted a career-high in assists and points with 27 in 55 regular-season games with the Ottawa Senators and Boston Bruins. Only four of those assists came on the power play, as well. That’s a lot of even-strength point production, which, combined with a strong year defensively as well, will likely lead to a team giving him a good deal in free agency. He ended up leading the Bruins in 5-on-5 ice time during the postseason.
This isn’t a real needle-mover, though. If it works out, he can give you some quality minutes, preferably in the bottom half of your defensive depth chart, and help drive play in the right direction. He’s no Dougie.
The list really falls off from there. I don’t think there’s much value in the free-agent market for a top-four defenseman. When Alex Pietrangelo hit the UFA market, there was a quality second option in Torey Krug. Barrie is essentially this year’s Krug, which says a lot about this UFA class.
If the Hurricanes are going to fill Hamilton’s role with a big splash addition, it’s probably going to have to be through a trade.
The two big names on the market appear to be Seth Jones and Matt Dumba. I can get behind one of these options, but the other feels destined for disappointment.
Let’s start with the disappointment.
Jones reportedly wants out of Columbus. The 26-year-old blueliner has one year left on his deal that carries a $5.4 million AAV. In addition to him having a modified no-trade clause for the next two seasons, he will almost certainly demand a price equal to or higher than what Hamilton is looking for this summer.
The kicker here is that Hamilton is better than Jones, and it isn’t particularly close.
Jones has been a negative relative defensive impact at 5-on-5 for Columbus each of the past two seasons and has been a negative offensive impact in each of the last five seasons.
The most troubling part of this is that his defense has gotten worse every season since 2017-18. If his isolated offensive impact was below average but he still got his numbers and his defense remained strong, that would be one thing, but there’s just nothing there that suggests he is the player that Hamilton is.
To add to that, it’s not like Jones has played on consistently bad teams. Columbus made the postseason for four straight years from 2017 to 2020, and Jones has played more than half of his minutes over that span with a good defensive partner in Zach Werenski.
And let’s say they get Jones and he even performs above expectations and does a respectable job of replacing Hamilton (something I very much doubt would happen). He would then be owed a new contract after next season, and you’re going to have to pay him just as much as Hamilton. In all likelihood, it would be more than Hamilton since they’ll be another year down the road and another year removed from the COVID seasons.
You’d then have to pay Hamilton money for a guy who isn’t as good as Hamilton, and that’s likely after you’d have already overpaid to acquire him in the first place.
For those reasons, it’s a pass for me. While I think he is better than his metrics indicate and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him turn things around on a new team, I don’t think it’s something that the Hurricanes should legitimately consider.
The other big-name defenseman is Dumba, who I consider to be a better option than Jones for several reasons.
Like Jones, Dumba is a 26-year-old right-handed defenseman. Dumba has an additional year on his contract, though, and he has a more consistent track record of offensive impact than Jones.
Dumba has scored double-digit goals in each of the last four 82-game NHL seasons and tallied six in each of the last two shortened seasons. He has also been a consistent source of offense at 5-on-5 in each of the past three seasons.
There are notable downsides to him. He is a weak defender who has hurt the Wild in terms of expected goals against in almost every season of his NHL career. To this point, though, his shooting ability and his offensive driving have made up for his defensive shortcomings.
The Hurricanes would have to feel confident that Slavin could help things with Dumba’s defense. Unlike a guy like Barrie, I could actually see Dumba’s defense improving in Carolina’s system. And unlike a guy like Jones, Dumba’s offense has been consistently strong enough to warrant taking that risk.
You also get a guaranteed two years of Dumba at a $6 million AAV, which lines up well with the contracts that Carolina has on the books right now. Jordan Staal and Jesper Fast are the only notable players with expiring deals after the 2022-23 season.
Beyond Jones and Dumba, no one really knows who is and isn’t available. It’s totally within the realm of possibility that the Hurricanes are looking into a name that hasn’t been publicly tossed around the rumor mill, but if you made me pick one of those two players, I’d go with Dumba and feel pretty good about it.
If all else fails and the Hurricanes have to solve this problem in-house, things don’t look great.
Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, and Brady Skjei will likely be the team’s top-three defensemen next season, and there’s a sizeable drop-off from the first two names to the third name. The drop-off from a Hamilton to a Skjei should not be overlooked. It’s dramatic and your team is far worse in that scenario.
After a promising start to his NHL season, Jake Bean had a brutal finish in the latter stages of the regular season and into the postseason. He was practically unplayable.
Does he take a step forward? Does he get snatched up by Seattle in the expansion draft?
If he stays put in Carolina, he will likely be one of the team’s top-six defensemen and they will need a lot more from him both at 5-on-5 and on the power play. If the team is serious about winning, Bean being your number four defenseman is likely a recipe for disaster.
An interesting name is Joey Keane. The Canes acquired him in a one-for-one trade that sent Julien Gauthier to the New York Rangers in 2020 and gave him his first NHL look in game 56 in Nashville, which was essentially a throwaway game with no meaning for the team.
He isn’t going to be a big impact player, but I’d imagine that he is on the shortlist of guys who could take the next step next season and make the team’s roster if they don’t go outside of the organization to address the need for a top-four defenseman.
If Hamilton is gone and they can’t get anything done for a replacement, that means Pesce will get even more ice time, and one of Bean, Keane, or a Sellgren will have to play top-four minutes. This is all under the assumption that Jake Gardiner isn’t even in the equation given his uncertain medical status and general status with the organization.
It’s almost impossible for me to imagine a scenario wherein the Hurricanes let Hamilton walk, address it in-house, and remain as good as they were last season.
There you have it. That was a breakdown of the options on the table for the Hurricanes. Of course, it would be a classic Don Waddell and co. move to spring a trade for a really solid defenseman out of nowhere.
That would be this offseason’s version of the Devon Toews trade. Colorado surprised everyone when they acquired Toews from the Islanders in a deal that everyone knew would be a win for the Avalanche. Those deals are hard to pull off, though.
If the Hurricanes want to at least tread water next year and not take a step back, they have to either sign Hamilton or go out and get a guy to play in something that resembles his role. They can’t stand pat and try to do it from within the organization, and while there are some pending free agents out there that would fit well on this blue line, those options aren’t viable in terms of getting a top-pairing defender.
The next three weeks are going to be crucial for the Hurricanes. They need to get this one right.