Hurricanes need more than minus-4 from Hamilton

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At least Dougie Hamilton got his shot on goal. That streak – now 194 games old – stayed alive on an otherwise dismal night for Hamilton and the Carolina Hurricanes.

But especially for Hamilton.

More than a third of the way into the season, the Hamilton acquisition hasn’t quite worked out as planned. It’s hard to imagine things going any worse than they did Tuesday. Hamilton was on the ice for all four of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ goals in a 4-1 loss, accidentally tipping one between Petr Mrazek’s legs for one and turning the puck over at the offensive blue line leading to a two-on-one the other way for another.

The turnover wasn’t even the worst part. Hamilton might not have been able to catch up with the play, but he started coasting at the blue line, long before the Leafs scored. It was a bad look on a bad night already – a career-worst minus-4 for Hamilton, and while plus/minus sometimes isn’t a great measure of performance … sometimes, it is.

“It was just the kind of night where everything goes wrong,” Hamilton said. “I’ll just try to learn from it, and try to get better, obviously.”

Still, Tuesday wasn’t the issue. This loss wasn’t Hamilton’s fault any more than it was Mrazek’s. Hamilton wasn’t very good, but it was a total team effort in many ways and things would have been worse if Mrazek hadn’t been so sharp early. When even Sebastian Aho can’t score when left alone in front of the net, things aren’t going to go well.

The concern over Hamilton’s play is a longer-term issue, Tuesday’s goals just being an example of the defensive inattention that has become chronic. Some of that was expected when the Hurricanes acquired him, along with Micheal Ferland, from the Calgary Flames during the June draft. But they were also expecting an elite offensive player as well, the one who scored 17 goals last year. They haven’t gotten that, either.

Rod Brind’Amour is willing to cut him some slack on the latter, even with just the three goals and 10 points, because he likes what he sees when Hamilton has the puck. But he sees what everyone else does when Hamilton doesn’t.

“He’s got to be better,” the Hurricanes coach said. “There’s no question, in my opinion. He knows it. We’ve talked about it. He’s supposed to be one of our best defensemen. We expect more. Not offensively. To me, he’s going to make those plays and create offense, but he hasn’t had any luck at all. He’s had some real good looks this year and nothing’s gone in for him. But he needs to play hard away from the puck, too.”

There’s a whole legend surrounding Hamilton around the NHL, one that attempts to explain how a ninth overall pick is on his third team at age 25. He didn’t want to party with his teammates in Calgary. Who cares? He’s been known to read a book or two, which makes him some sort of outcast. None of that stuff matters, least of all in this market, where players are generally left to themselves and no one’s asking him to be a vocal leader.

No one’s asking him to be anything he isn’t.

But he is being asked to be what he’s capable of being on the ice, and if not a comprehensive two-way defenseman – although he’s clearly an exceptional talent with the ability to put it all together – at least not a liability in his own zone.

The Hurricanes went back to the Jaccob Slavin-Brett Pesce pairing late, although Brind’Amour said that had as much to do with shaking things up as anything else. But he had been looking at that before Pesce was hurt a month ago, and the Hurricanes may end up reuniting that old duo for defensive purposes instead of continuing to send Hamilton and Slavin out together.

This is an old story: the Hurricanes have no margin for error. Tuesday was a great example of that, as things went from 1-1- to 4-1 in a hurry with Jordan Staal out and Ferland lasting less than a period Tuesday with an apparent recurrence of his concussion issues and Aho gone cold. The way this team is built, it needs Hamilton at his best to be at its best. There’s no room for anything less. That’s true of everyone, but especially him.