New Jersey Devils Are Missing Dougie Hamilton’s Presence More Than Ever

The loss of New Jersey's number one defenseman has had a trickle down effect on the defense corps. Now, they are seeing the results of Dougie Hamilton's injury.

New York Rangers v New Jersey Devils
New York Rangers v New Jersey Devils / Elsa/GettyImages

There are a lot of narratives that float around an NHL team’s season, and that is no different for this edition of the New Jersey Devils. Some blame coaching, some blame the usage of certain players or the lack thereof, and others blame anyone who makes a random error in a random game.

It's probably a combination of all of the above (some more than others). That’s sports. From this perspective, perhaps the biggest reason for the Devils up-and-down season is the absence of their no. 1 defenseman, Dougie Hamilton, who has been out of the lineup with a torn pec muscle since the end of November. 

The Devils miss his presence on the power play more than anything else, but they also miss his ability to put the puck on net at any time. They miss his 771 games of experience on the blue line and his situational awareness. But don’t get it twisted, we’re not saying he is a Norris Trophy caliber defender, but he is a number 1 defenseman. While New Jersey has been able to tread water at times, the lack of experience on the defense corps has had a lot of moments of - ‘Oh wow, how was that guy so wide open’ or ‘Why didn’t he shoot there.’

Simon Nemec and Luke Hughes have extremely bright futures in the NHL. But they are both so young, and there have been a myriad of growing pains this season. They’ve also played a lot more minutes than the coaching staff and front office probably projected they would. But that is pro sports. Injuries happen, and young players are sometimes put in positions that they are unequipped for - whether it’s mentally or physically. 

John Marino looks great at times, and then also looks like he misses having Ryan Graves as his D-partner. Jonas Siegenthaler is not having the same season he did last year, and he also misses his D-partner in Hamilton. Colin Miller and Brendan Smith have probably played more minutes than anticipated, and while they’ve had great spurts where they’ve played well, it’s also gone the other way as well.

Vitek Vanecek, Dougie Hamilton
New Jersey Devils v Chicago Blackhawks / Michael Reaves/GettyImages

Hamilton’s loss especially hurts on the power play. He’s their quarterback on that first unit, and he’s never met a shot that he didn’t want to take. Now that role is held by Luke Hughes, and he is not at Hamilton’s caliber just yet. Nemec has taken over Hughes’ role on the second unit, and at times has been really good. However, a defenseman who can quarterback the power play should be on GM Tom Fitzgerald’s shopping list at the trade deadline (or in the summer). 

“They’ve probably done a better job than expected for me, both those kids, and they’re going to continue to grow,” Head Coach Lindy Ruff said of Nemec and Hughes after a 5-1 thrashing from their Hudson River Rivals. “There’s a lot of stuff you like about their game, but I think you know with young defenseman - there are going to be mistakes. There’s going to be some poor decisions at times. You have to live with that, and you have to grow through it.”

Everyone playing away from where they should be slotted has had an effect on the whole team’s play. Miller, Siegenthaler, and Smith have all missed games since Hamilton went down, so that is a big reason why the defense hasn’t been as stout as last season. It’s not a coaching issue when you don’t have the right pieces in place. And that’s not an excuse; it’s a fact.

We haven’t even mentioned the amount of games that some of the forwards have missed (or the goaltending issues). Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, Timo Meier, and Ondrej Palat have all missed significant games. And then there’s the gross situation that led to the departure of Michael McLeod - who was leading the NHL in face-off win percentage when his Devils career ended.

All of that plays a part in why the team is 28-24-4 with 26 games left in the 2023-24 season as I type this. They are a team that is missing its big gun on the blue line and are playing .500 hockey. It’s not the most embarrassing season ever, nor is it their best regular season. Remember, last season was an outlier. That isn’t a normal hockey season. But this current one hasn’t exactly been normal either. After saying all of that, the Devils are just five points out of a playoff spot. Nothing is set in stone. This is sports. Random, unexpected stuff happens all the time! And maybe New Jersey can find a way to claw into the playoffs and welcome back Hamilton as well. Stranger stuff has happened.