In yesterday’s Daily Cup of Joe, I stepped through the near-term contract situations for the Carolina Hurricanes.
That article focused primarily on the Hurricanes’ free agents for the current off-season, but it did also touch on the situations for Andrei Svechnikov and Dougie Hamilton who are up for new contracts after the 2020-21 season. Svechnikov is certain to be re-signed as a young cornerstone of the franchise. While there is definitely a place for Dougie Hamilton in the lineup long-term, his situation is less definite. Today’s Daily Cup looks at the Dougie Hamilton situation from multiple angles.
Dougie Hamilton’s Carolina Hurricanes tenure
Hamilton arrived via an NHL draft weekend blockbuster trade that sent two high draft pedigree young players in Noah Hanifin and Elias Lindholm to Calgary for Dougie Hamilton, Micheal Ferland and the rights to Adam Fox. The move was an aggressive one by the new Canes management team to part ways with two young players with upside seemingly because of contract demands and in return add Hamilton who would be moving to his third team already despite being a talented, still young player in his own right. My check ins with contacts who tracked the Flames closely mostly pegged Hamilton as an elite or close offensive defenseman who could be a bit aloof and have too many lapses defensively at times.
As a new Hurricane to start the 2018-19 season, Hamilton was immediately thrust into a top role paired with Jaccob Slavin. Hamilton seemed to start okay but then quickly hit a downturn. The result was a tough time acclimating and a rough first half of the 2018-19 season. He ultimately played his way down into the bottom pairing for awhile and just did not look great even in that role. But somewhere around the midway point of the season, Hamilton settled in and found a higher gear. He was among the team’s best players during the second half sprint into the playoffs. He was better defensively and registered a massive 15 goals and 29 points in 44 games after the calendar flipped to 2019. The 28-goal, 54-point pace added an offensive catalyst to the back end that added a whole other dimension to the Hurricanes offensively.
In 2019-20, Hamilton picked up right where he left off. In 47 games before a leg injury, Hamilton had 14 goals and 40 points in 47 games for a 24-goal, 70-point pace. Effectively, he was scoring at a good rate for a first or second line forward despite being a defenseman. At the time of his injury, only John Carlson could rival him for offensive production for a defenseman, and Hamilton was easily in the Norris Trophy conversation.
At his level of play after settling in, Hamilton has been a legitimate first pairing defenseman and truly elite offensively.
Obviously a player playing at that level fits into a team’s potential plans well into the future.
Dougie Hamilton’s contract situation and next deal
Hamilton has only the 2020-21 season remaining on his current contract at a salary of $5.75 million. He will be justified in asking for raise with anything even close to his 2019-20 level of play. The question is how much and for how long. Erik Karlsson just signed for a massive $11.5 million per year. But John Carlson’s contract signed before the 2018-19 season is for a more modest $8 million per year. Roman Josi recently signed for $9.1 million. It is not yet known how much the COVID sports economy and flat cap will impact salaries, but pre-pandemic, Hamilton’s 2019-20 production could have made a case for $10 million per year. But it is worth noting that there are also some very good defensemen, including fellow Hurricanes who are under contract for significantly less.
But when I net it out, I think with a 2020-21 season that is even close to a repeat of 2019-20 that Hamilton’s market value as a hard to find right shot defenseman who produces a ton offensively would be in an $8 to $10 million range on the open market.
Where Hamilton fits in the Hurricanes blue line scheme and future
Though it did not work great out of the gate in 2018-19, Hamilton has meshed well with Jaccob Slavin and the duo has become a bona fide first pairing that is great defensively and, more courtesy of Hamilton than Slavin, can also produce offensively. When an NHL team has a legitimate first defense pairing that is as positive as Slavin/Hamilton was in 2019-20, obviously the goal is to keep that together.
Below that top pairing, the story of the Hurricanes blue line is one of depth but also a bit of uncertainty. If the Hurricanes let unrestricted free agents Trevor van Riemsdyk, Joel Edmundson and Sami Vatanen depart via free agency as a I expect, then the second pairing is anchored by Brett Pesce, and the options for his partner are Brady Skjei, Jake Gardiner and Haydn Fleury. In an ideal world, I think Skjei meshes well with Pesce somewhat similarly to how Slavin and Hamilton work. Skjei can be a bit of a rover, but Pesce is incredibly good at defending behind the play even when challenged with speed. But regardless of if it is Skjei, Gardiner or Fleury, the Hurricanes have three decent options to fill out the second pairing and also build a third pairing with players who could surely slot into a second pairing on teams with less depth.
The addition of Skjei increases the Canes’ depth on the blue line and also the potential to build a capable blue line even without Hamilton. But I think it is important to duly note that to say the Hurricanes could get by without Hamilton is not the same as saying they would be nearly as good without him. The ability to be an offensive catalyst is not something that the Hurricanes would replace by slotting everyone up a notch higher.
So I think it is accurate to say that the Hurricanes could get by without Hamilton but at the same time say that losing him would be a significant loss.
So how could this shake out?
The Hurricanes have not talked publicly about Hamilton’s contract situation yet (it is still way early), but my hunch is that the team will make a concerted effort to re-sign Hamilton but will not be willing to do the maximum deal that he could get from a desperate team as an unrestricted free agent. After living pretty much its entire existence with the salary cap largely irrelevant, the Hurricanes will have cap constraints starting for the 2021-22 season when Svechnikov’s new contract kicks in. So to put numbers to it, I think the Hurricanes would look to re-sign Hamilton at for $7.5 million or less over something like 4 to 6 years. If Hamilton’s camp suggest that he wants to see how close he can get to $10 million per year, I think his days in a Hurricanes uniform become numbered. I think that frugal ceiling for a Hurricanes offer holds true across any of the scenarios detailed below.
If Hamilton’s camp seems to want a maximum deal in initial talks
I would expect that the Hurricanes and Hamilton’s agent will talk during the off-season to at least see where each other is as a starting point. If from the beginning, Hamilton’s camp seems focused on collecting as much as possible from this next contract, I think Hamilton’s days become numbered. As I said on Twitter on Tuesday, I do not think that necessarily means that the team immediately looks to trade him though they would definitely at least explore trade options. What is lost on some people when considering the Hurricanes is that the team has reached the point where it is trying to win now. As such, I think it is possible that the Canes keep Hamilton at least long enough to see how the rest of the blue line works out and even through the entirety of the 2020-21 season even if he will not be re-signed. Put simply, returning to the playoffs and another kick at the can of doing more is meaningful, and Hamilton is part of that. So he does not necessarily have to be traded immediately even if it looks like he might cost to much for a next contract.
If Hamilton’s camp suggests he wants to stay and they are willing to negotiate accordingly
If instead initial talks suggest that Hamilton really wants to stay and is willing to concede a bit financially to do so, then I think the probability increases even more that Hamilton is with the team for the entire season. In such a scenario, it could make sense to hammer out a deal sooner rather than later to gain clarity on the cap situation going forward. Regardless of timing, I think a modest discount/reasonable request makes Hamilton a priority to re-sign.
Wild card #1 — The expansion draft
The looming expansion draft introduces a wild card as far as process and timing for re-signing Hamilton. If Hamilton re-signs, I would figure the Hurricanes to protect Slavin, Pesce and Hamilton. That would force the Hurricanes to expose and likely lose one of Haydn Fleury or Brady Skjei. If Hamilton does not re-sign before the expansion draft, the Hurricanes could then also protect one of Fleury or Skjei and then re-sign Hamilton as an unrestricted free agent after the draft has passed. The risk here is that if Hamilton reaches the point where he can talk to other teams that he gets an offer he cannot refuse and departs. But though riding into free agency with Hamilton with the intent of still re-signing him is a bit of a white-knuckler, it is also the Holy Grail in terms of maintaining the blue line depth as a strength despite the expansion draft.
So even if the Hurricanes do decide to re-sign Hamilton, the potential is there to hold off on doing that deal until the middle of next summer.
Wild card #2 — Potential leverage on the Hurricanes’ side
Despite being a good player and still fairly young, Hamilton is already on his third team. Both previous departures were not particularly amicable in terms of what was said about him after his departure. Having found a home, a comfort level and a couple of compatriots in Warren Foegele and Andrei Svechnikov, Hamilton seemingly would have a preference to settle in for the long haul in a good situation for him personally. If the team gets a sense that Hamilton really wants to stay and is willing to give some financially to do so, I think the Hurricanes could muster quite a bit of leverage. Since Dundon bought the team and Waddell started running the controls, the team has had a quick trigger finger in terms of unloading players whose contract demands did not match the team’s perceived value. The rumors and rumblings on both Hanifin and Lindholm who were traded for Hamilton were that their salary demands played a significant role. The team also seemed to be willing to re-sign Justin Faulk under some terms but instead unloaded him quickly when that did not work out. Jeff Skinner’s situation was a bit more complex, but he is another whose cost did not match what the team was willing to play. So at the point where Hamilton’s agent comes in high and the team says that they will look to trade him without a better offer, it is not unsubstantiated bluffing. The possibility is very real. In addition, the team’s current salary structure is interesting. With Slavin making $5.3 million per year and Pesce making only $4.0 million per year, the in-house comparables based on slotting players suggest a salary much lower than market value. No doubt Hamilton could just walk and get much more on the open market, but if he really wants to stay and is willing to sacrifice a bit financially to do so, the Hurricanes might gain some leverage based on the team’s blue line financials.
Wild card #3 — A sell high possibility? And history of asset management?
In terms of basic asset management trying to buy low and sell high, Hamilton’s stratospheric 2019-20 season and especially offensive production does present an opportunity to potentially sell high on a player who is currently at or very close to his peak. Could the Skjei acquisition be a foreboding of where the Canes’ brain trust was heading? There are multiple different possible explanations, but since Dundon/Waddell/Tulsky took the reins, one could describe the organization’s blue line management as thus — First, the organization places value in blue line depth to the point where it is willing to basically pay an extra top 4 defenseman. In 2018-19, the team added de Haan and Hamilton to make the team 5 deep in terms of top 4 defenseman and that is not even counting van Riemsdyk. The team added two defenseman before and during the 2018-19 season. Fast forward to 2019-20, the team parted ways with Justin Faulk and Calvin de Haan. That created a chance to cut budget and depth on the blue line. But instead, the team replaced two for two adding Jake Gardiner and Joel Edmundson. Then the team added Sami Vatanen and Brady Skjei at the trade deadline too. Injuries definitely played a role in that activity, but giving up a first-round draft pick to land Brady Skjei who is under contract for multiple years is not about adding short-term injury help. So over the past two years, the Canes added two and then three #4/#5 defensemen to stay at or above 5 total. Is it possible that the strategy (Tulsky-driven?) is that the team is willing to pay for depth in terms of higher-end defensemen, but that the team feels confident it can find suitable options to back fill slots on the open market such that is more about quantity of ‘good enough’ than specific players. If this latter viewpoint is the right explanation, that would suggest that selling high and then replacing Hamilton is definitely a possibility.
How does it end?
This is a situation with a wide range of possible outcomes, so predicting specifics is a long shot, but for fun I will try anyway.
My starting point is that Hamilton really does want to stay and will push his agent to get something done. Further, I think the Hurricanes will want to keep Hamilton but will negotiate from a point of strength knowing with reasonable certainty that Hamilton wants to stay and also the fact that plan B of moving on without Hamilton is viable.
Based on that scenario, my wild guess is that the Hurricanes will re-sign Hamilton for 4 or 5 years at a bargain price at or below $7 million per year. The question is whether such a deal would happen soon or instead the organization is willing to play the game of chicken with unrestricted free agency next summer to be able to protect another defenseman from the expansion draft.
So put me in the long shot category of 5 years at $6.75 million per year.
What say you Canes fans?
1) How critical is it that the Hurricanes re-sign Dougie Hamilton? Is it possible that adding Skjei was partly to increase the blue line depth such that losing Hamilton and then another player to the expansion draft still leaves the team with enough on the blue line?
2) How do you think the Hamilton situation ends in terms of what (trade or re-signing), when and how much ($ for next contract)?
3) What other thoughts do you have about the Dougie Hamilton situation?