Rangers Must See Hamilton on Broadway

Phil Kocher
@ me

Phil Kocher

Managing Editor at Cleared for Contact
I believe in Nate Silver, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Christopher Hitchens, and hockey analytics.
Blogging between diaper changes.
Phil Kocher
@ me

To answer the question posed by The Hockey News’ Lyle Richardson, yes, the Rangers should pursue Dougie Hamilton. They should pursue any option that would improve their defense. Specifically, right-handed puck-movers to strengthen a relatively weak right side where 23 games into the season they have returned their $5.5M analytics drain named Dan Girardi to the top pairing next to franchise blueliner Ryan McDonagh. It’s a role he has no business playing in any longer, as PuckDaddy’s Ryan Lambert has emphatically proven, but it’s a frustrating familiarity that AV and the Rangers’ coaching staff are all too comfortable returning to.

The fact Hamilton is being mentioned to the Rangers, in particular, shouldn’t surprise you. They’ve been linked to other high-profile puck-movers like Blues’ defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, as well as Jacob Trouba, who I wrote about back on November 8th. All three players are right-handed, right-side defenseman who move the puck well (to varying degrees). The Rangers’ interest in any of them is all based on the same principle. Their respective skill sets are ones the Rangers defensive group could really benefit from. Their right-side, composed of Dan Girardi, Nick Holden, and Kevin Klein, has been so weak this season they’ve actually transitioned first-year breakout rookie Brady Skjei to his off-side less than a month into the season just to compensate for the imbalance. In his case, it’s paid off thus far, thankfully, but the need for an impact partner to play alongside McDonagh remains. Only Holden has shown an adequate level of competence there, but it’s probably not good enough for the long road through Hell that is otherwise known as the NHL playoffs. Enter the next contestant on the Is the Price Right?—Dougie Hamilton.

For a little context, Kevin Allen of USA Today penned an article back on November 25th suggesting that the Flames and Rangers would be suitable partners in a hypothetical scenario centered around sending the Toronto-native to New York City in a sizable trade deal to address weaknesses for both clubs. That’s where this all started, really. Allen’s logic is fairly straightforward:

Calgary’s Dougie Hamilton fits their need for a right-shot defenseman who is mobile and can generate offense. The Flames, desperately in need of scoring help, would probably ask for J.T. Miller because he is also 23 years old and can play center or wing.

Before you object, probably with anger, know that Allen did, too. He noted that Miller’s value has never been higher. He has 19 points in 23 games, tying him for the team lead in points with fellow linemate Kevin Hayes. While I’ve already argued it was foolish of the Rangers not to buck a bridge deal by offering him a long-term contract in exchange for a more favorable AAV, his two-year deal, worth just $2.75M per season, is very attractive in this kind of trade talk. So, too, is his age. He’ll turn 24 next March. The fact he plays all three forward positions is icing on the cake.

The 23-year old Hamilton, on the other hand, has inexplicably seen his value as a commodity regress somewhat since signing a six-year/$34.5M extension with the Flames worth $5.75M in AAV just five days after they acquired him in June of 2015. While he has 55 points in 106 games played with the Flames since the trade (good for 0.52 P/GP), the Flames as a team have the fifth-lowest goals-for per game in the NHL this season at just 2.29, despite being one of the teams closest to the salary cap ceiling. Sure, they miss Johnny Gaudreau who’s 78 points were fifth-best in the entire league last season, but ultimately they are a club with a very high payroll and little to show for it. They’ve failed to make the playoffs since 2013-14, two years before the trade that brought Hamilton to Calgary, and despite his production, it doesn’t appear they’re on the track to make them this season either. They’re 10-13-2 on the year, and though they’re only two points out of the last Western Conference wildcard spot, they are also 11th in the Conference.

I’m baffled, however, by some of the arguments—including both Richardson’s and Allen’s takes—that suggest Hamilton needs to go in part due to expectations he’s failed to meet. Anyone making that argument isn’t properly accounting for the impact he has on the game from a production or analytics perspective. He owns a 53.8 CF% and a 52.8 FF% this season and has produced well despite the Flames’ lack of success as a team. As noted above, his 0.52 P/GP pace is actually an improvement on the 0.47 P/GP pace he had over three years with the Bruins. It’s his success, not his failure to meet expectations, that actually justifies his name surfacing in the NHL rumor mill. Add the fact he’s a right-handed point-producing defenseman in a league bereft of right-handed point-producing defensemen and it helps to better explain why the Flames could possibly look to move him. He’s one of the most valuable assets they have to offer if they’re looking to fill significant holes elsewhere in their line-up, like their left wing depth where they are currently missing the high-flying Gaudreau. Miller, of course, has played much of his time in New York at left wing and has found the majority of his success this season there with Kevin Hayes at center and Michael Grabner on the right wing.

In a vacuum like the one originally suggested by Allen—Hamilton for Miller straight up—the Rangers are unlikely to agree, even as the pressure to address a deficient right side of their defensive group mounts. But Allen isn’t wrong to suggest there’s a reason for these teams talk on this matter. Just the opposite, in fact, because this kind of trade scenario would address exactly what both clubs want and need. The Rangers need a mobile, puck-moving, right-handed, right side defender meets well head-on with the Flames’ need for a young goal-scoring forward on a cost-controlled contract. It’s the salary cap, in this case, more so than the one-for-one value, that’s most restrictive here.

According to CapFriendly, the Flames currently project $0 in available cap room now or at the trade deadline and are currently benefiting from over $3.49M in long-term injured reserve relief. This is due to a combination of carrying a 23-man roster, injuries, big-money contracts, and potential performances bonuses, so a Hamilton deal would likely represent more than just trading to address a need elsewhere in their lineup. It would also help to alleviate the cap pressure they’re feeling right now while being pressed so tightly to its ceiling.

The Miller-for-Hamilton deal, on paper, is probably fair. After all, as author George R.R. Martin once quipped, “a fair bargain leaves both sides unhappy.” But it’s a cap impossibility at the moment. Again, according to CapFriendly, the Rangers have just under $2.8M in available cap room right now, though that number is being inflated by the extra players the Rangers are currently carrying with Zibanejad and Buchnevich both injured. That number will change once either or both return to the lineup because they have 24 players, including those on IR, on the active roster right now. In order to meet the 23-man roster limit, once healthy again, they would need to move a body or two to be compliant, so more cap room could theoretically open depending on who is traded or assigned to Hartford by then. It’s a complex but highly maneuverable situation that, in my estimation, means the Rangers actually have around $4M in flexible cap space. But that’s cap space that, should they pull off a deal of this size this early in the year, would eat into their available room at the trade deadline this February. While acquiring Hamilton for Miller plugs a hole from a strength, it would also handcuff the team from making many or any depth moves at the deadline. Not to mention, with Buchnevich and Zibanejad both currently injured, the forward depth isn’t at full strength, so they wouldn’t be dealing from their strongest position today.

But make no bones about it — Hamilton is absolutely worth pursuing. The prospect of pairing such a smooth-skating, point-producing defender like Hamilton with Ryan McDonagh is especially exciting. Neither Girardi, Klein, nor Holden can hold a candle to Hamilton’s combination of speed, skating, and offensive production. A McDonagh-Hamilton first-pairing would finally give the Rangers a legitimate top-2 defensive partnership that could handle even the toughest assignments in the league, all while adding to their league-leading offensive output. I’m a firm believer in the theory that the neglect McDonagh has been treated with regarding the quality of his partners over the last few seasons has seriously limited the Rangers ability to compete deeper into the playoffs. Fixing that by acquiring someone of Hamilton’s talents while future legend Henrik Lundqvist still has viability would be a massive improvement.

It’ll be interesting to see if this Allen-lead take grows legs or not. TSN’s Bob McKenzie has confirmed the Flames are “definitely listening” to offers being made in exchange for Hamilton, but has also been sure not to mince words, noting “that’s not the same as wanting to trade him.” Regardless, the Rangers should absolutely show interest so long as Flame’s General Manager Brad Treliving is willing to listen. Hamilton would be a boon to their defense core and the Broadway box office musical analogies and references that would dominate the post-trade headlines (and pre-trade headlines like this one) is just too good of an opportunity to pass on.

♫ “…And the world is gonna know your name
What’s your name, man?

Alexander Dougie Jonathan Hamilton” ♫

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