Seth Jones isn’t the solution to Blackhawks’ defensive woes, but Dougie Hamilton could be
Blue Jackets star Seth Jones is suddenly available via trade, but he’s not actually the game-changing No. 1 defenseman the Hawks need. Pending free agent Dougie Hamilton, however, would fill that hole.
There’s a No. 1 defenseman available this summer with the kind of game-changing abilities the Blackhawks desperately need.
It’s Dougie Hamilton, the Hurricanes star staring down unrestricted free agency.
It’s not Seth Jones, the Blue Jackets star suddenly becoming one of the NHL offseason’s biggest trade chips.
But the Hawks have already been tied to Jones, who reportedly recently informed Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen he won’t re-sign when his contract expires next summer. The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline named the Hawks as well as the Kings and Canadiens as “major players” in early Jones trade talks in Columbus. The Oilers and Maple Leafs are also expected to poke around.
On the surface, Jones makes perfect sense for Hawks general manager Stan Bowman. Jones’ agent is Pat Brisson, who also represents Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Andrew Shaw and Nicolas Beaudin and is close with Hawks brass. Jones’ reputation, fairly earned earlier in his career, is that of an elite defenseman and franchise cornerstone.
The Jackets are about to start a rebuild and will be looking to acquire the picks and prospects of which the Hawks are building a surplus. And trades provide the certainty that free agency negotiations lack, and Bowman would surely only complete such a trade if Jones agreed to sign a long-term extension in Chicago.
The logic begins to crumble, however, when digging into how elite Jones has actually been lately — and how he, as the top defenseman in the trade market, contrasts with Hamilton, the top defenseman in the free-agent market.
Jones’ performance has indeed declined steadily for years, both offensively and defensively.
His points-per-60-minutes rate peaked at 1.78 in 2017-18 but fell to 1.43 in 2018-19, 1.27 in 2019-20 and 1.19 this past season — his lowest rate since he was traded from the Predators to Jackets in January 2016.
His even-strength scoring chance ratio, meanwhile, peaked at 52.4% in 2016-17 but has now fallen in four consecutive years. It dipped into the red in 2019-20 (at 48.7%) before plummeting to 46.8% this season, ranking 152nd among 211 defensemen league-wide. His expected-goals ratio was even uglier — 42.8%, ranking 201st of the 211 — and the Jackets were accordingly outscored 61-45 during his even-strength ice time.
To be fair, the Jackets’ overall team performance also fell off a cliff this season, but Jones was part of the problem rather than a victim of it.
That can be seen through Jones’ stats alongside Zach Werenski, the Jackets’ other elite defenseman. In 2017-18 and 2018-19, Jones and Werenski made each other better. Their even-strength scoring-chance ratio during 2,200 minutes together was 52.8%; their individual ratios without the other were both below 50%.
But the past two seasons, their results together worsened (48.4% scoring-chance ratio) and Jones struggled even more without Werenski (46.8%) — yet Werenski thrived without Jones (52.4%).
Hearing a lot of "Jones' numbers were only bad this year because the Blue Jackets were bad." It's an understandable assumption but it doesn't really hold up. #CBJ pic.twitter.com/nv0uwgoGI2— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) May 30, 2021
Changes of scenery and system will almost certainly improve Jones’ numbers and effectiveness.
He remains very talented, with the poise, vision, passing ability and rangy, adept stick usage needed to excel as a two-way defenseman in the modern NHL. He has a perfect 6-4, 213-pound frame. He’s in the prime years of his career, set to turn 27 in early October.
But considering how inflated Jones’ reputation has become in relation to his skates-on-the-ice performance, any trade to acquire him — even with Kekalainen now in a sticky situation with relatively little leverage — would be a massive overpay. For the Hawks, it would likely require a package including the 11th overall pick, one of their two second-round picks and an upper-tier prospect like Adam Boqvist or Ian Mitchell.
Bowman, if he paid that, would describe it as the necessary price to pay for a proven-but-still-young No. 1 defenseman, the kind he’s currently praying Boqvist or Mitchell can eventually become.
Bowman would be right about the Hawks’ dire need for that defensive star power. Duncan Keith would be better off as a second-pair guy at this stage of his career; Connor Murphy has become a bonafide first-pair option but can’t carry the Hawks’ whole unit. The Hawks might be best served staying patient with their youth movement, but there’s an argument for filling that gaping hole right now.
Bowman would be wrong in that hypothetical scenario, though, about who he chose to pursue to fill it.
Hamilton, if somehow convinced to sign with the Hawks, would not only live up to that billing as a proven-but-still-young No. 1 defenseman but also possibly fix the whole unit.
A fairly successful but polarizing figure earlier in his career in Boston and Calgary, Hamilton has ascended into the highest echelon of elite defensemen during his past three seasons in Carolina.
At even strength during that time period, he ranks first among 224 NHL defensemen in shot-attempt ratio (57.4%), third in scoring-chance ratio (57.8%) and third in expected-goals ratio (57.3%). The Hurricanes have outscored opponents 178-129 during his ice time. And he has contributed significantly to that goal-scoring, too, averaging 2.19 points per 60 minutes last season and 2.02 this season.
Hamilton’s recent playoff performances (including this year) haven’t been quite as consistent or spectacular, but that shouldn’t undermine his stock too much. The Hurricanes understandably hope to keep him but will struggle to do so, with limited cap space and a multitude of other free agents — including high-profile RFAs Andrei Svechnikov and Alex Nedeljkovic — to also re-sign.
So Hamilton will, more likely than not, become fair game when the market opens July 28.
He’ll instantly receive the affections of many of the NHL’s now-32 franchises, especially since this year’s UFA defensemen pool is shallow beyond Hamilton, Tyson Barrie and Alec Martinez. The Hawks will be one of many suitors, and the odds will be low for them to win the sweepstakes.
If they somehow could, though, Hamilton would be everything they need — and wouldn’t set back the youth movement by taking away picks and prospects. The same can’t be said about Jones.