When the Hurricanes fell down the standings in the 2014-15, the consolation prize was at least a good one – a good position for the 2015 NHL draft. The draft was deemed to be 1 of the deepest in recent history which 5-8 players thought to have elite potential. The Hurricanes landed at #5. The draft laid out that Connor McDavid would go first. Jack Eichel would go second. And then the trio of Dylan Strome, Mitch Marner and Noah Hanifin would go third through fifth with the order uncertain. With that being the case, the Hurricanes were in the middle of some trade rumblings but but most likely left with whoever was availabel at #5. The team and the fan base were both thrilled when the consensus best defenseman in the draft, Noah Hanifin, fell to the Hurricanes. Sitting at the bottom of the tier below the top 2 forwards, the selection of Noah Hanifin was a no-brainer and a cause for celebration and optimism for a fan base that needed it.
First impression at 2015 Hurricanes prospect camp
But the path from top shelf draftee to elite NHL player can take time. Noah Hanifin first took the ice in Raleigh for the prospect in July of 2015 shortly after being drafted. My first impression of him was simply “Joni Pitkanen.” Despite being 18 years old, Noah Hanifin was already had NHL side and a smooth, effortless skating stride. And playing against other players his age, he had every bit of Joni Pitkanen’s comfort and willingness to play with the puck on his stick for as long as necessary until he had something better to do with even if meant an extra skating loop here and there in the neutral zone.
Making the big club
The NHL training camp would be the first test in terms of just how ready Noah Hanifin was at 18 years of age. As would be reasonably expected for an 18-year old, Hanifin’s game was not clean in terms of defensive soundness yet, but in terms of skating ability, size and physical ability, Noah Hanifin was NHL ready, and it showed when the summer transitioned to fall and Hanifin was matched up against NHLers in training camp. He proved physically ready to continue his development at the NHL level and stuck with the big club as a third pairing defenseman.
Climbing the learning curve
Two things jumped out at me in terms of first impressions at the NHL level. First was that Hanifin was not at all overmatched physically in terms of size and skating ability. What also jumped out at me was how little of the Joni Pitkanen in his game transitioned into October when the regular season started. Out of the gate, Hanifin built his base in the NHL making simple plays and staying out of trouble. On the one hand, this is a great foundation on which to build a bigger game. On the other hand, part of me was bothered that he had at least temporarily given up the part of his game that most projected to be elite.
As an 18-year old making the jump after only 1 year of college hockey, Hanifin did not so much ‘wow’ out of the gate, but he did show the elite skating ability that people had raved about and seemed to settle into an NHL role and ice time to further his development. When the 2015-16 season ended, Hanifin had not pulled an Ekblad and jumped straight from draftee to NHL star and top 4 defenseman, but he did build a foundation and show progress building toward the 2016-17 season.
Meanwhile in Columbus and Philadelphia
As mentioned above, the 2015 NHL draft was an incredibly deep one. While Noah Hanifin was pretty unanimously the top defenseman in the class, he was not the only 1 deemed to have elite potential. Ivan Provorov had been rated as high as fifth before the start of the 2014-15 season before falling. And come draft time, Zach Werenski was the other defenseman who climbed the charts and earned consideration in the group of players behind the top 5. Provorov was taken by the Flyers seventh overall, 2 spots behind Hanifin, and Werenski was taken by the Blue Jackets eighth overall, 3 spots behind Hanifin. Both Provorov and Werenski were returned to their junior clubs to continue their development out of the NHL spotlight.
Both players made their respective NHL rosters in training camp and joined Noah Hanifin at the NHL level to start the 2016-17 season.
Zach Werenski – Columbus
Despite playing outside of the spotlight of the NHL media, Zach Werenski hit the ice running in 2016-17 and has been 1 of the great stories of the 2016-17 season. His Blue Jackets team is the best in the NHL at the midway point in the season, and Werenski basically pulled an “Ekblad on 1-year delay.” He is playing on a top defense pairing alongside another young defenseman in Seth Jones. Werenski is holding his own against the NHL’s best on a nightly basis, is averaging 21:10 of ice time and is on pace for 12 goals and 50 points including 30 points on the power play. He is a regular on the power play and has logged some time on the penalty kill as well.
Ivan Provorov – Philadelphia
Ivan Provorov followed the same route as Werenski returning to juniors for the 2015-16 season before hitting the ground running at the NHL level for the 2016-17 season. Provorov landed in the top 4 for the Flyers and has remained there since. He leads the team with 21:18 of ice time per game and like Werenski is expected to handle some of the tough minutes against elite NHL forwards on a nightly basis. Also like Werenski, Provorov is playing in all situations as a regular on the Flyers’ penalty kill and also seeing some time on the power play. He is on pace for 35 points projected over 82 games.
If you look past the big 3, the 2015 draft could prove to be a tremendous draft for defensemen. In addition to the big 3 selected in the top 10, the draft included Thomas Chabot who just impressed playing for Team Canada and being 1 of the best players in the just completed world juniors tourney. In addition, like Provorov and Werenski, Brandon Carlo with the Boston Bruins similarly just straight from juniors into a top 4 role and is averaging 21:36 of ice time in a top 4 role. If a few more players emerge over time, the draft focused on elite forwards Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel could also go down as 1 of the richest in recent history for including top-tier defensemen.
Benchmarks in place and watch points scheduled
The real measure of success for this trio of 19-year old defensemen will be when they come closer to their ceilings probably 1-3 years from now. But in a league where stars and leaders are younger and younger, I think more often elite players seize opportunities and emerge far faster than any schedule would suggest. Through half of the 2016-17 season, Werenski and to some degree Provorov are playing at a level pretty close to what a general manager would have hoped for when drafting them. Hanifin does show flashes and has every bit of the set of tools that made him the fifth overall pick, but he is still playing in a third pairing role and learning on the defensive side of the puck.
The next couple weeks will offer an odd opportunity to watch Hanifin and Werenski side by side with the Hurricanes Blue Jackets matching up 3 times in the next 10 days. Those 3 games will be followed shortly thereafter by a chance to see Hanifin and Provorov in the same game in Raleigh on January 31.
While some amount of patience is important as is recognizing that every player will have a different and unique development path, it will still be interesting to compare and contrast Noah Hanifin to a couple other top-tier defensemen from the same draft class who could theoretically be on a similar development path. Look for Noah Hanifin and the aforementioned benchmarks to be included regularly in my ‘what I’m watching’ style game previews.