First, let me address all of the violent objections, conspiracy theories and unwarranted interpretations.
It is not because he is not good enough
Overall, I have been impressed by Hanifin’s play overall and would rate him as ‘slightly better than hoped for’ at this early stage of his development. He clearly comes with the raw physical skills that got him drafted fifth overall in a strong draft. He has not been overmatched physically. And the biggest positive for me in watching Hanifin is his ability to play hockey skating backwards without the puck. He is actually a pretty good defender. He is comfortable maintaining small gaps. He uses his size and reach well. And he skates well enough to hang with NHL speed coming at him. This is a critical and in my opinion the most important checkpoint whenever a ‘great skating young defenseman’ comes along. Too often ‘great skating’ means dynamic on offense with the puck on their stick but oftentimes are still back at level 1 in terms of that all-important defense thing. That is not the case with Noah Hanifin. Put more simply, he can play defense. He is making a few too many mistakes for a good NHL defenseman right now, but I think that is to be expected with the big jump from college hockey and the very early stage of gaining experience.
Shorter version: Considering giving Hanifin some time in Charlotte is a not based on a negative assessment of his play thus far or inability to play at the NHL level.
And it is not because the team will try to preserve a year on his entry-level contract
In theory, Hanifin could play up to 9 NHL games, spend the rest of the season in the AHL and start 2016-17 on the first year of his first contract (the ‘slide’ as it is called). This would be great for the Hurricanes financially/contract-wise, but it is not going to happen. Noah Hanifin is all but certain to play much of the year at the NHL level because it is the best place for him to develop, and it is the right thing for the team to do. If he just was not ready, it would be 1 thing. But with him proving he can do it, any financial/contractual gains from jettisoning him to Charlotte for the full season would be more than offset by the ill will of letting CBA unfairly dictate where Hanifin plays. So I am NOT saying to send him to Charlotte with the intent to leave him there for the rest of the season.
But in terms of his development I think a stint in Charlotte could be the best next step for a couple reasons
First, I think it will allow him to get back to his natural game skating, carrying the puck and making things happen. He has not been bad at the NHL level, but as he is figuring it out, his game has been pretty buttoned down. We all love Noah Hanifin, but if you think through 8 games of Canes hockey, how many times have we seen him play a stretch of multiple shifts where he skates like mad, attacks and makes things happen? That ultimately is his game. It will take some time for it to translate to the speed of the NHL game, but I think it is important not to let him stray too far from that core for too long. I actually called for the coaching staff to take the reins off him and Murphy a bit even at the NHL level, but I think maybe just as good or better would be a short time in Charlotte where it might happen a bit easier.
Second, I think players at his stage of development benefit from being 1 of the best players on the ice. It helps with confidence. It enables them to be leaders. And it helps them mold their game at a level that is appropriate for their skill level versus just trying to tread water/survive at a level that is above where they are currently in terms of development. At the AHL level, he should get 22 minutes per night and a big role in making his team win. That is ultimately the mindset that he needs to play with at the NHL level. It is something that he already possesses from being an elite player at lower levels, but I think actually something that can be lost with too many games just trying to grow up to a higher level.
To this day, I think Elias Lindholm is trying grow out from being forced into the NHL level before he was ready and playing too many games where he was just trying to make it instead of thrive. I think Hanifin could benefit from a mix of games at a lower level where he can build confidence, play his game, thrive and lead.
As good as Noah Hanifin is right now, and as optimistic as I am about his future, I think a short stint now (and possibly even again later) could be well-timed and a positive contributor to his 2015-16 development that still primarily (but not completely) happens at the NHL level.
Could fit well with other objectives
The timing is also interesting from a team perspective and in terms of Ron Francis’ other tasks for the 2015-16 season. The Hurricanes are coming off a win that was pretty solid overall defensively and saw a Jordan/Murphy pairing play well overall. Coach Bill Peters has always had a ‘if it wins, stick with it mentality.’ It will be interesting to see if that impacts Noah Hanifin or if he draws back into the lineup per what seemed to be the original plan.
Also lurking in the background is the fact that Canes GM Ron Francis also needs to figure out if/where both Ryan Murphy and Michal Jordan fit in the blue line picture longer-term. Brett Pesce has obviously played his way up the projected future depth chart, and there are more young defensemen in Charlotte who factor into the puzzle. Giving Murphy a run of ice time with a more experienced partner might provide a different/better read on exactly where he is development-wise.
To be clear, I think doing what is best for Noah Hanifin trumps most of these side projects, but I actually think the set might all be coming together with Hanifin picking up 8 games of NHL experience and maybe benefitting from a short stint at a lower level.
Based on the fact that he is mostly holding his own at the NHL level, I do not think this is the only path to go. But I think there is significant value in putting a player at Noah Hanifin’s age in positions where he can excel and play his game. And think after an 8-game run in the NHL, it might be a good time to mix in a bit of AHL time.
Who thinks I am nuts?
Who thinks I am right?
Who is somewhere in between?