When drafted #5 overall and as the first defenseman taken in the 2015 NHL draft, Noah Hanifin came with high expectations. After Aaron Ekblad was able to go straight from the 2014 draft seemingly into a top pairing role with only a single leap, at least the potential for immediate stardom was there. After a solid training camp in which Hanfin proved that he could compete at the NHL level, Noah Hanifin made the team straight out of training camp and started in a third pairing role alongside Ryan Murphy.
He has not pulled an Aaron Ekblad, but then I am not sure that is a fair standard to hold any 18-year old to. He is still playing primarily on the third pairing. And with new Canes blue line stories popping up intermittently all season, Noah Hanifin has gone about his business about as quietly as is possible for an 18-year old (now 19) who is playing at such a high level immediately.
But for those watching closely, he has been building his game and tracking toward reaching the high ceiling set for him even if it is not on the ‘immediately’ schedule. Some of subtle and less subtle steps in his development that I have noted are:
—Assumption of primary role as puck carrier and more patience with the puck on his stick. Early in the season, Hanifin was quick to get the puck off his stick, move it forward and stay out of trouble almost to a fault. He generally looked to make quick plays forward and also seemed to defer almost too much to Ryan Murphy in those early games. Right now, especially playing with Michal Jordan, Hanifin has assumed the primary role in terms of advancing the puck for his pairing. He has even started to offer occasional flashes of the Joni Pitkanen-ish freelancing that he displayed when playing playing against players his own age in the prospect camp in July. (Most notable recent example was when he carried the puck the length of the rink and tried a wraparound attempt against the Isles.)
—Significant improvement in terms of being beaten to the middle of the rink defending 1-on-1. Early on, Hanifin had many a 1-on-1 situation that he defended well, but he did get inside-outed every once in awhile for a path straight to the net. That ‘still learning’ deficiency in his game early on has virtually disappeared over the past couple months.
—Solid play as primary puck carrier for power play entries. Perhaps the coolest development in Hanifin’s game has been his instant success stepping into the role as the primary puck carrier to gain the offensive blue line on the power play. His skating ability makes him a natural for the role, but more impressive has been his ability to read the situation and defensive positioning to consistently make the right plays at the right times to gain the blue line with the Canes having control of the puck.
—Cleaner play and risk/reward mix in his own end with the puck on his stick. Coming from a lower level of hockey as a college player last season, Hanifin brought with him a few bad habits that would not work in the NHL. Early on, he had a propensity when pressured just inside his blue line to use a quick spin to the outside to buy a little time to make a backhand pass across to his partner. The issue was where he was doing this and also the fact that the result was too often a blind, soft backhand pass that had danger written all over it and could be picked off especially as teams started seeing it on video. At a more general level, his attention to detail and crispness in terms of moving the puck when in his own end has improved significantly over just a few months.
Justin Faulk deservedly claimed headlines early in the season when he was scoring power play goals every other game. Brett Pesce deservedly claimed headlines when he parachuted almost directly from college hockey into the top 4 with only a very brief pit stop in the AHL. And more recently Jaccob Slavin has been claiming headlines stepping into Justin Faulk’s slot on the first D pairing. But a little bit in the background at times, Noah Hanifin has been making steady progress in his development.
What impresses me most about him is his maturity and attitude. As noted above, those of us who watch him shift after shift can see the significant progress in various parts of his game. He is clearly coachable and a quick study. And it makes sense given his attitude and approach that is heavy on doing the work to achieve the high ceiling expected of him and minus any sense of entitlement based on his pedigree and draft ranking.
I expect that Noah Hanifin will continue to progress as a player throughout the remainder of the 2015-16 season, but I am also incredibly anxious to see what the 2016-17 season brings after he has had an offseason to digest all that he has learned and also round out certain parts of his game.