An important part of being an analyst or commentator is admitting when you’re wrong. I’ll flat out admit it: when Glen Gulutzan shook up the defensive pairings following Calgary’s Dec. 10 loss to the Dallas Stars, I thought it was a bad idea. Heck, I wrote about it and pronounced it as such. My thought process was that the Flames had one defensive pairing that worked really well (Deryk Engelland and Brett Kulak) and it would be silly to break them up to gamble on finding chemistry elsewhere.
Now that Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton have gelled this well together, making such a fuss about the third pairing sure seems silly in hindsight. In particular, the solidifying of Hamilton’s role on the team and a consistent partner have unlocked a ton of really good things in his game.
A Bad Penny, Then Consistency
Early in the season, Hamilton was passed around like a bad penny (in terms of lacking a consistent defensive partner). He began the year playing primarily with Jyrki Jokipakka on the third pairing, but also received consistent power play duty (playing with Giordano) and served as Nicklas Grossmann’s partner when he occasionally got into the lineup… and was swapped into a pairing with T.J. Brodie for a game in mid-October.
When Hamilton was swapped into full-time first pairing duty with Giordano, he suddenly received a jolt of additional ice time and the first consistency in defensive partners he saw all season – especially in terms of consistency in who he played with throughout each game, not just game-to-game.
The consistency in teammates has seemed to bring out consistency within Hamilton’s possession game.
Rolling Five-Game Chart of Various Possession Metrics
As you can see, early in the season there was a ton of “wobble” in his numbers. Since he’s been placed with Giordano – and ignoring the initial adjustment period for the pairing – Hamilton’s possession numbers have been both consistent and strong.
Making Teammates Better
We’ve mentioned this before, and we’ll mention this again, but Hamilton has been a difference-maker when it comes to making his teammates’ possession numbers better when he’s on the ice with them.
Here are the defensemen who have played with Hamilton at even strength this season. As you can see, most of them have better numbers with Hamilton than without him.
The usual warnings about sample size apply to roughly the last two or three pairings due to the small time the duos spent together, but man, those are some nice results for the top four defenders with Hamilton.
In His Own Words
It’s probably not entirely coincidental that Hamilton’s resurgence has happened at the same time that the Flames have enjoyed their best stretch of play (and on-ice results) this season. Despite his prominence on the score-sheet during the Flames’ many wins, Hamilton has deferred much of the credit to his goaltender.
“I keep saying, I think the biggest thing has been Chad’s play,” said Hamilton. “He’s kinda solidified us, our whole team and everything, and it’s easy to play when you know you have a good goaltender behind you and he’s been unbelievable for us. That’s probably the biggest thing.”
After spending his first few seasons in Boston (and learning a single system in his pro career), Hamilton has learned two different systems in two different years. Hamilton noted that his playing style hasn’t changed much this season.
“I don’t think my game’s changed that much all year,” said Hamilton. “I think I kinda had a bad stretch, four games or something, where I just didn’t get any luck. After that, I played with Gio and I think that’s where my game’s changed. I think just being able to play more, and kinda have that challenge to play against top lines and stuff, I think that’s what I was used to in the past. It’s been fun to take on that challenge again and just do my best in that opportunity.”
Every player is definitely different, but one consistent statement from defenders young and old is that it helps their play if they play more often – rather than stewing on the bench about their mistakes, they’re thrown back into the game. Since Hamilton’s been moved to Giordano’s pairing, he’s averaging an additional two and a half minutes of even strength time per game, he’s generating more offense and his underlying numbers have improved.
It’s probably too early to conclude that throwing Hamilton onto the top pairing saved the season or fixed his game – and I’ve taken enough statistics courses in my life to avoid making any broad causal declarations – but it’s probably about time to give Gulutzan credit for adjusting the defensive pairings.