There was a sense of tribute to Dougie Hamilton’s performance Monday night, scoring a pair of late power-play goals after his friend Andrei Svechnikov had been knocked out, but also a sense of vindication, and not merely for Svechnikov.
A season that began with Hamilton lost at times on the ice has evolved into one where he is the Carolina Hurricanes’ most dangerous two-way defenseman, an offensive enigma capable of crashing the net on the rush yet still able to partner with Jaccob Slavin on the Hurricanes’ top pairing.
If the Hurricanes are going to beat the Washington Capitals, down 2-1 going into Thursday’s Game 4, Hamilton is going to have to be a big part of that. It’s a long way from October and November, when Hamilton was snakebit with the puck and struggling with an as-yet undisclosed nagging injury, on the wrong end of too many goals.
His second half, healthy and with his footing under him both on and off the ice, has been a tour de force of playmaking from the blue line, from one end of the ice to the other. He ended up with a career-high 19 goals, 16 of those coming in the final 44 games, and is tied for the team playoff lead with four points in three games – a long way from October and November.
“It was really hard for me,” Hamilton said Wednesday. “It’s hard when everyone expects stuff of you and you’re doing the best with what you have. For me, I just tried to stick with it and keep believing in myself that I’ll start feeling better. I’m happy with how I responded to everything and trying to just keep going”
The early struggles took a toll on Hamilton, whose quiet and bookish nature became fodder for an ex post facto whispering campaigns when he was traded, after being a top-10 draft pick, from Boston to Calgary and Calgary to Carolina by age 25. Hamilton was labeled aloof, a loner. The most famous criticism came from a Canadian personality who claimed Hamilton didn’t fit in with the Flames because he’d rather visit a museum than go to lunch with his teammates.
That such a charge would be leveled as grave criticism is typical of the insular hockey world, where the frat-boy culture can run strong. Hamilton was a two-time academic player of the year in junior hockey, where some players spend more time in strip clubs than classrooms. His teammates heard the rumors, but shrug at them now. Hamilton still bristles. He has not forgotten.
“People were saying I wasn’t fitting in with the team, which was not true,” Hamilton said. “I fit in in Boston, had tons of fun there, lots of success. Same as Calgary. Fit in there. Tons of success. Had a lot of fun with the guys. It’s not like for me that I’m finally on a team that I can be myself and fit in with guys. Nothing’s changed. It’s just what people say and the exterior part of it.”
His teammates note a different Hamilton reputation, for showing up early and staying late after practices and games. That’s how he befriended Svechnikov, who is not only the same kind of rink rat but, at 18, doesn’t have a lot of other places to go. There’s no question watching Alex Ovechkin knock out Svechnikov in the first period Monday helped inspire Hamilton’s performance, but it also wasn’t out of character.
With Micheal Ferland injured and headed to free agency and prospect defenseman Adam Fox apparently committed to signing elsewhere, Hamilton may be all the Hurricanes have to show for the draft-weekend blockbuster that sent Elias Lindholm and Noah Hanifin to the Flames, and the way he’s playing, that may not be all bad.
“He had a few bumps in the start, I think he would agree with that,” Hurricanes center Jordan Staal said. “It goes to show everything that comes along with trades. I’ve been there. It can be difficult at times for different players. He definitely started feeling comfortable, you could tell, in the second half, started playing his game.
“And the puck was going in for him, too. He was shooting a ton of pucks at the beginning of the season and it wasn’t trickling in. He’s been ripping them now and they’ve been finding the twine.”
But the blockbuster nature of that trade also placed extraordinary demands on Hamilton, who was expected to score 20 goals and dominate at both ends of the ice (while being anchored to the second power-play unit, which has recently become the de facto first power-play unit).
“I think the expectations on him were different right from the start and it just took him a little time,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “It’s funny, he even said, ‘I always play better after Christmas.’ I was like, well, we don’t want to wait until Christmas. For whatever reason, he has, and we’re thankful. He’s a huge part of what we’re doing.”
Maybe, finally, Hamilton has found a home.
“Nothing’s changed for me,” Hamilton said. “I just try to get comfortable. It’s always hard when you’re on a new team and you don’t know anybody, the staff and the people around, you come in with a reputation and stuff as well. For me, it was just trying to get comfortable and I’m comfortable with everything now.”