Despite the fact that the 2020-21 season is still in progress with the Stanley Cup Finals just beginning on Monday, the news, rumors and rumblings suggest that the off-season is underway.
Hurricanes’ free agents Dougie Hamilton, Jordan Martinook and Andrei Svechnikov have all been discussed by Pierre LeBrun and others.
Of those three, Dougie Hamilton is easily the biggest decision point. Svechnikov will be signed to some kind of contract, so the question there is just dollars and term. I am higher on Martinook than many simply because of what he brings in terms of leadership, but his is a depth forward whose contribution on the score sheet could easily be replaced.
What is the same from those two articles?
At the time I wrote the first article, Hamilton was coming off a phenomenal 2019-20 season scoring-wise but did have his season ended abruptly with his leg injury. When I revisited the situation in early March, Hamilton’s stock had fallen a bit. He was still chipping in offensively but had yet to pile up goals, and he had had some ups and downs defensively. He finished the 2020-21 season strong offensively such that his stock was arguably closer to what it was at its peak.
In the September article, I noted Roman Josi’s $9.1 million contract among others. By the time I wrote again in March, Alex Pietrangelo’s $9 million deal was a more recent ceiling/benchmark. Those are still decent comparables for what I think would be a ceiling for Hamilton’s next deal.
In addition, nothing has really changed with Hamilton’s slotting for the Hurricanes. Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce are #1 and #1 (you pick the order) in terms of building a solid top 4, but neither brings what Hamilton does offensively in adding the production of another scoring forward. And though I am higher on Brady Skjei than I was before the 2020-21 season started, he just does not have the upside that Hamilton does. As such, even with his ups and downs and sometimes lapses defensively, Hamilton is clearly #3 on the Hurricanes blue line.
What has changed?
My general opinion of Hamilton and the situation has not changed much. I see Hamilton as a high ceiling top 4 defenseman whose stretches of sub-par play also put in place a relatively low floor that seems likely to be revisited over the course of a long contract.
What maybe has changed is the question on if playoff Dougie Hamilton is more likely to be in the lower end of that wide range. No doubt, Hamilton is a player whose upside easily fits on a team built to win the Stanley Cup. But the burning question exiting the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs is whether Hamilton can reach his ceiling when it matters in the playoffs. In the 2019 playoffs, Hamilton struggled a bit and was temporarily demoted to the third pairing in the middle of a hotly-contested playoff series. Especially against Nashville when the Hurricanes needed Hamilton to dial it up with Jaccob Slavin out of the lineup he faltered and seemed to single-handedly lose game four with a series of errors.
For a Hurricanes team whose goal has risen from just making the playoffs to reaching the end of the playoffs, the burning question is whether playoff Dougie Hamilton has a higher gear or if he just is what he is in the playoffs. No doubt not re-signing Hamilton would leave a hole in the lineup, but if that hole really only exists in the regular season, it seems pretty easy to just move on and redeploy a significant amount of salary cap budget.
The bigger picture and the window
With the Hurricanes making a rapid ascent from non-playoff team to being a team that at least in the regular season looked capable of a deep playoff run, the window is theoretically open for the Hurricanes to make a few adjustments/improvements and challenge for the Stanley Cup. And despite the fact that the Hurricanes just reached this level, I think people overestimate how long this window is open for. Of the core, all of Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, Brady Skjei, Jordan Staal and Vincent Trocheck will be potential unrestricted free agents in the next four years. Certainly, one would expect many of these players to re-sign and stay, but the makeup of the team could change because of salary cap challenges and player departures. Certainly, the potential exists for it to be extended, but as I see it the team currently has a 3-4 year window during which key players are signed to favorable contracts and there is some budget to build around a good young core just entering its prime. In that regard, the Hurricanes must either re-sign Dougie Hamilton or replace him with a comparable player or couple players to fill that hole.
That could be easier said than done.
Players who are capable of slotting on a first defense pairing are rare, not generally available and pricey in terms of contract and/or trade value. I do not see anyone on the Hurricanes current roster as capable of filling Hamilton’s slot. I am much higher on Brady Skjei than I was when the season started, but only as a #4 and not so much a replacement for Hamilton. With his recurring injury woes and struggles at the end of the season, I see Gardiner as a questionable offensive #5. Bean is similar. And if re-signed Hakanpaa is best suited for a third pairing role. The list of free agent defensemen available this summer is ‘meh’. Seth Jones is exciting, but likely to fetch an exorbitant sum in trade and maybe not even available in division.
So I think discussing whether the Hurricanes should re-sign Dougie Hamilton without discussing potential options to fill his slot misses the point. As a team that needs to get better, not re-signing Hamilton without a set of plays to replace him seems very short-sighted.
I would pay a lot for Seth Jones if he is available. He reminds of Pesce and Slavin in that his floor even during a bad stretch is really high. That makes him a steady top 4 in good times and bad. But assuming he either is not available to a division rival or is just too expensive, the crop of free agent defensemen is ‘meh.’
The Hockey News has Tyson Barrie as the second-ranked free agent defenseman behind Hamilton. I view Barrie as the good version of Bean of Gardiner maybe being capable of filling Hamilton’s slot on the top power play unit and being competent in a #5 slot defensively but really not a top 4 defenseman on an every game basis. Below that there is a decent crop of players who probably have a #4 type ceiling well below what peak Hamilton can be.
So what do you do?
I really think it comes down to Brind’Amour, Waddell and the rest of the brain trust making a bet on whether Hamilton can play at his top level in the playoffs. Results to date are not overly positive, but the ceiling is there. If the assessment/bet is that he is what he is as a player who struggles a bit to find the intensity level and higher gear in the post-season, he just is not what this team needs to take the next step right now. If instead, the brain trust thinks the up and down post-season results can be building blocks to figuring it out, I think it is reasonable to take a shot at upside despite the risks.
If and only if the team thinks Hamilton could still ‘find it’ in the playoffs, then I think a near- market salary but only for four years could work. A four-year term would see him come of contract when the Hurricanes maybe need it with Jaccob Slavin also scheduled to become a free agent the summer after the team had to re-up Pesce, Aho and Teravainen. I do not see the Hurricanes winning a bidding war up near the Pietrangelo range regardless, but maybe they stretch to $7 million or even a tiny bit higher if first the assessment is right and the term is a lower-risk four years.
In the event that either the brain trust just aims for different for the next time in the playoffs of if Hamilton wants/gets maximum dollars and term, I could see the Hurricanes trying to parlay the cap budget back to where they were a couple years ago going five deep in terms of top 4 defensemen. Could the team opportunistically add a pair of capable even if less spectacular defensemen for $3.5 to $5 million each for a total of $7 to 9 million for not one but two top 4-capable defensemen? Likely that would require using the trade market, but Waddell has been able to do this multiple times already.
Where do I land?
I am torn. I keep coming back to the critical fact that right now the Hurricanes are trying to build a team capable of winning against good teams in best of seven series in the playoffs, NOT trying to make the playoffs. Is Hamilton the right player for that?
I lean toward thinking that to beat teams like Tampa Bay in the playoffs, you have to build a team with a really high ceiling and then have it all click at the right time in the playoffs. Though there is definitely a risk/reward element, Hamilton definitely fits in terms of building for a high ceiling.
I would make a call on Seth Jones who I like better and see what might be available via trade, but if Hamilton is willing to sign for four years at $7 million maybe stretching a tiny bit higher, I would do it. Interestingly, that is 50/50 a vote for Hamilton but also realization for how difficult it would be to add a comparable high ceiling player to replace him.
The waiting is the hardest part
(Name the song/artist) As I said on Twitter, when Hamilton’s name started percolating, I would be surprised to see this resolved before the expansion draft. The Hurricanes are not going to win a big bidding war anyway, and best is to not have to protect him for the expansion draft. And many possible suitors will be in the same position preferring to use three protection slots for other players to then add Hamilton as a fourth. That could also limit the trade market for him if the Hurricanes reach the point where they are ready to move on.
What say you Canes fans?
1) What do you make of Dougie Hamilton’s up and down play in the playoffs, and with the Hurricanes suddenly a team focused on advancing in the playoffs, how significant is this in your preference/willingness to re-sign Hamilton?
2) Where do you land? Would you try to re-sign him, and if so, what would be your maximum terms in terms of salary and contract length?
3) If Hamilton cannot be re-signed or if you choose to pass, how would you replace him?