Watching Noah Hanifin and Ryan Murphy mostly side by side as a pairing on Friday night was interesting in my opinion. Though I would not say that they were lights out on Friday, I continue to think this line has the potential for some “Oh my goodness!” moments. In addition to watching them as a pair, it also brought to mind an interesting comparison of the 2 and their path.
I recognize that Ryan Murphy is a bit more old news these day and not as exciting as the newest model. And I also think it is fair to say that Noah Hanifin’s projected ceiling as a draftee might be significantly higher than Murphy’s. But Murphy was also a first round pick (12th overall is nothing to frown at). He was also a player whose skill that had him drafted that high was his elite skating ability and potential to become an elite offensive defenseman. Hanifin’s NHL size at only 18 years old compared to Murphy’s need to overcome the fact that he will always be a little bit undersized is obviously a difference. And we can debate if and/or how much higher Hanifin’s ceiling is based on raw potential and skill. But I actually think their starting point and to-do list to become a good NHL defenseman are not that different. And watching them play side by side just magnified.
In my game recap, from Friday which you can find here, I said the following:
Hanifin is already physically ready to play in the NHL. He already makes enough good plays to play in the NHL. The thing that will most determine when he becomes an elite NHL defenseman will not be dictated by either of those things. It will be dictated by how quickly he can tighten up the small stuff and go 4 for 4 every single shift on a varied batch of small decisions/plays.
And therein lies probably the hardest challenge to becoming a great NHL defenseman. It is not so much about how many good plays you make. It is more about how many bad plays you make. You can play 20 solid shifts of hockey through 2 periods and then if you have a turnover at your own blue line that ends up in your net and later get beat 1-on-1 for a goal against, you suddenly had a horrible night. The key to not having 1-2 bad ‘oopses’ on too many nights is an nearly perfect attention to detail and nearly perfect habits that never fail. On an average shift, a defenseman is often called to make 3-4 simple plays – sorting out a 3v3 rush correctly, retrieving a puck behind the net and handling it cleanly, making a correct judgment on whether to immediately pass it from behind the end line or skate it out first, hitting a stick with the outlet pass, etc. Under pressure and at high speed, a defenseman must get the vast majority of these small plays right and avoid any of the ‘big oops’ variety mistake.
So getting back specifically to Noah Hanifin and Ryan Murphy. Ryan Murphy was real loose in his early stints in the NHL. He made a decent number of good plays. And his ability to sometimes skate the puck from one end to the other was breathtaking. But in between, he would occasionally lose track of someone in front of the net. He would sometimes get beat on the boards in such a way that the opposing forward was able to walk right out front. And he occasionally had issues sorting out his assignment in the defensive zone. Fast forward to today. It will take regular season hockey to get a real read on exactly where he is development-wise, but for me it is obvious that has a much greater grasp on the need for attention to detail on every little play/decision. Murphy has made significant strides in having the focus and ‘every little thing’ intensity to cut down on his volume of ‘big oopses’ that doom otherwise good efforts for many shifts.
In watching Noah Hanifin play next to Ryan Murphy, I can see where Hanifin’s game is not nearly as tight yet in such a way that it reminds me of Ryan Murphy’s initial forays in the NHL. That is not to say that Noah Hanifin has not generally played well so far in training camp. Especially when you consider that he is trying to make the jump straight from college, he has been impressive. But he logs a couple times per game where he plays a puck forward without reading that an opponent is going to jump the passing lane. And he has the occasional loose play where he makes the necessary but potentially dangerous pass across his defensive zone without the crispness and pinpoint accuracy that is ideal for that pass. And he has a propensity for a quick spinning pass just inside his own blue line to try to quickly get the puck across before being pressured. If he is quick about it, that split second should not be an issue 9 out of 10 times, but especially once teams catch that on video, that other 1 time is going to be bad.
In terms of raw potential, once can argue that Noah Hanifin’s ceiling is higher than Ryan Murphy’s, but I think the to-do list is really not that different. Noah Hanifin is physically capable of playing in the NHL today. He will make enough great plays to justify the high hopes for him. And I expect that he will be in the starting lineup on opening night or soon thereafter. But his ability to reach an elite level as an NHL defenseman will be driven by his ability to tighten up all of the small things and play with a laser focus where the attention to detail is there for each and every little play inside each and every shift.