The Dougie Hamilton trade: too many ifs

Dougie Hamilton. Photo by Alex Hamilton/SAITWell, Brad Treliving finally did it. He did the thing I’ve been dreading for the better part of three years, and traded Dougie Hamilton for magic beans.

The leadup to this deal reminded me strongly of the infamous Taylor Hall and PK Subban trades. It also has shades of another infamous Flames deal, the Dion Phaneuf trade in January 2010. It rests on several massive “ifs” about player performance. It does not, by any objective measure, automatically solve any of the problems with the roster. It is the sort of deal that could, and should, cost Brad Treliving his job if it backfires. 

The Rationale


The Flames desperately needed a top-six right wing and had surplus valuable defensemen; everyone could see this. It was always just a matter of which d-man left, and which forward they targeted in return. Both the choices made here seem questionable.

Although Hamilton was deeply misused for three years under two coaches, Hamilton and Mark Giordano had matured into one of the few genuinely elite top pairings in the league. Top-pairing, right-handed defensemen are unicorns in the NHL, and Brad Treliving’s 2015 acquisition of Hamilton for three draft picks appeared to be his masterpiece. Glen Gulutzan’s refusal to use Hamilton, one of the most productive d-men in the league, on the power play until it was too late appeared to be a decisive factor in the coach’s firing.

Meanwhile, T.J. Brodie and the man they traded another three high picks for, Travis Hamonic, became the most visible possession black hole on the roster. As time wore on, Hamonic improved but Brodie did not; there is strong evidence suggesting Brodie was the boat anchor all along. At the same time, Brodie has notable pedigree and his situation wasn’t that much different from Hamonic’s a year ago. On paper, it made much more sense that Brodie would be the one traded for a forward.

And yet, starting in May, rumours overwhelmingly pointed to Hamilton. By Friday, the word was that Calgary and Carolina were talking about a deal involving Hamilton, Noah Hanifin and Elias Lindholm. It barely made sense then; the full contours of the trade were even worse.

The Return: not bad, but too many ifs

Although Lindholm priced himself out of Carolina, for the most part, this is a pure hockey deal for both sides. (So was Hall-for-Larsson.) The Flames are betting that Lindholm, who has scored at a steady rate of 40-45 points since being drafted, will be the elusive top-line right wing they need. It’s one of the three enormous “ifs” about this trade, because if he’s not, it’s unclear if they’re any deeper at forward than before.

There’s nothing wrong about Lindholm per se as a middle-six forward. He checks the boxes of being in the right age group, right-handed and able to play centre and right wing. Had the Flames acquired him for a much more modest package (perhaps Ferland and Fox on their own, or something with Sam Bennett), I would have no complaints. But it’s hard not to see him as the forward version of Adam Larsson – a perfectly fine supporting player who was nonetheless massively overpaid for and who has likely unfair expectations attached.

As Todd Cordell noted, Lindholm’s points the last two seasons make him the fourth-most productive on the Flames. He replaces Micheal Ferland, who was in his last year with the Flames after a 21-goal season. (I am fine with the Flames deciding Ferland wasn’t worth a UFA-scale extension.) More troubling, Lindholm’s 16 goals were less than Hamilton’s 17 from the blueline.

In more than one way, Flames fans have effectively the team’s word to go on in assessing whether trading an elite offensive d-man for a top-nine forward with the same production was worth it.

As for Hanifin, the RFA defenseman was a must for this trade. His career arc resembles Hamilton’s at the same age, but with important nuances. First, he was massively sheltered by Bill Peters (60% offensive zone starts). With Peters intending to return Brodie to the top pairing, this seems likely to continue.

In a way, the deal is less about replacing Hamilton with Hanifin than it is about replacing Hamilton with Brodie, and Brodie with Hanifin. The 23-year-old Hanifin can potentially be a core piece, but there’s no question Hamilton was the better player both at his age and today. The Flames are betting, against a fair amount of evidence, that Brodie can become a top-pair d-man again.

Why was Fox thrown in??

Some WAR-type analysts suggest that the Flames marginally won this trade, comparing the stats of the four roster players. However, nobody can account for the future value of Adam Fox, a legitimate A prospect.

The perplexing inclusion of Fox may be most revealing about the negotiation process for this trade.

The college d-man was highly touted, but it became apparent he was not going to ever sign with the Flames. The Flames therefore had to trade him this offseason, a year before losing his rights.

However, there was no apparent reason why Fox had to be included in this trade. Including an A prospect in a deal where you’re already giving up the best player is inexcusably poor asset management.

If Don Waddell insisted Fox was a dealbreaker, he was either massively overplaying his hand or playing Treliving like a fiddle. The Hurricanes were not getting any player better than Hamilton, and Ferland is a decent one-year asset to help replace Lindholm. Fox could have been used for any number of more useful trades, such as acquiring another forward or recouping a pick from rounds 1-3 in the draft. His inclusion appears a sign of Treliving’s desperation.

Museums are the new hot dog carts

Many look at Hamilton, a d-man with elite skills on his third team before age 26, and assume there must be something to the off-ice rumours.

Clearly, the Flames had other reasons for trading Hamilton. Treliving all but confirmed this, saying that there were “things he wasn’t going to get into” with the trade. Eric Francis and others said that Hamilton had an aloofness that was apparently perceived as apathy. This narrative led to this much-ridiculed anecdote:

Many fans, including myself, find this excuse hard to fathom. NHL teams retain players accused of far worse. Hell, Slava Voynov is attempting a comeback.

Sometimes, star players really are cancers. Other times, teams make bad trades because one or more decision makers have irrational axes to grind.

Some speculate that Hamilton requested a trade, and this does not seem improbable. Treliving repeatedly mentioned wanting players who “wanted to be in Calgary”; he may have meant both Fox and Hamilton. If so, I can’t help but wonder if Hamilton was pushed or jumped.

Fans can debate the trade all they want, but Treliving has probably staked his job on this deal.  He cannot afford another fiasco like last season. Treliving won’t get another shot at hiring a coach if Bill Peters fails; he won’t get another shot at trading a core player if this trade fails.