Noah Hanifin: Getting his feet wet during 2015-16 season
At the start of his rookie season as an 18-year old making the jump from college hockey straight to the NHL, Noah Hanifin started below the radar in a somewhat sheltered third pairing role. This made perfect sense as a way to give him time to get acclimated to the NHL without maximum pressure. I am also a huge fan of slotting young players in the middle part of the roster or lower and them moving them up when they earn it versus just pushing them up the depth chart based on draft pedigree as the team has done with Elias Lindholm. It is also important to strike a balance of optimism for eventual ceiling and patience, especially for young defensemen.
But at some point, the hope is that Noah Hanifin will blossom into an elite NHL defenseman. And that obviously necessitates a move up the depth chart at some point.
Early read on 2016-17 season
My assessment of his play thus far in 2016-17 is that he looks more comfortable and assertive with the puck on his stick especially compared to early in the 2015-16 season when he seemingly just tried to keep things safe and simple. But defensively, his development in terms of defensive zone coverage and sorting things out defending the rush is still a work in progress. He has been in the middle of his fair share or more of goals against.
Important context for Hanifin’s play thus far in 2016-17 has been the revolving door for the partner slot next to him. In only 15 games, he has played games with Klas Dahlbeck, Jakub Nakladal, Ryan Murphy, Matt Tennyson and also Ron Hainsey for the short stint when Hanifin moved up into the top 4 with Justin Faulk out of the lineup due to injury.
The chicken and egg problem
Might Noah Hanifin’s development benefit from more stability in terms of a defense partner and maybe even more if the Hurricanes could pair him with a veteran to add some stability to his situation?
Therein lies the chicken and egg problem for Noah Hanifin’s ongoing development. Like most NHL teams, the Hurricanes do not have a spare veteran top 4-capable defenseman who can be slotted down at #6. So does Noah Hanifin need to tighten up his defensive play down in the third pairing to move up and get ice time with a veteran? Or does Noah Hanifin need to play with a veteran to help tighten up his game defensively?
Importance of proper development at critical stage of Noah Hanifin’s young career
I do not think this is a situation to be taken lightly. I do think it is possible to hinder or even ruin young players’ development by mishandling them. There is the business of trying to win hockey games in 2016-17, but converting Noah Hanifin and the #5 overall draft pick spent on him into a player who can not just play in the NHL but also drive wins is also of high importance if the Hurricanes are to rise up the standings and become the perennial playoff team that Francis is aiming for. On the one hand, I understand the need for patience, but at the same time I think it is dangerous to just assume that the emergence of Noah Hanfin, the elite NHL defenseman as if that progression is simply a matter of a certain amount of calendar time ticking away. I view it more as a developmental program that requires some combination of Ron Francis, Bill Peters and Steve Smith to guide it.
The potential to move up in the current blue line situation
When I sort out the Hurricanes defense right now, I have Slavin/Pesce as both playing well in the here and now as a top pairing and at the same time continuing their development. Things can change over the course of the long NHL season, but as of right now, that pairing clearly falls into the “If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it” category for me. Justin Faulk and Ron Hainsey have struggled some out of the starting blocks. They played well together in Tuesday’s win over San Jose, but I would still be watching the pairing closely. My thinking is that if Ron Hainsey does not regain his form, I would consider giving Noah Hanifin some minutes next to Faulk. My thinking is that whatever is lost in terms of experience and soundness (remember Hainsey has not been so great in this regard anyway) might be made up for with skating and athletic ability.
To be clear, this is something that would need to be monitored on an ongoing basis. I am not saying that Hanifin is ready for the top 4, and I am not saying that it makes sense to just write his name into that slot pen for the rest of the season. Rather, he gets some time there, and the coaching staff then evaluates whether this is best for his development and to some degree the 2016-17 Carolina Hurricanes.
Regardless of exactly how it is handled, the proper and successful development of Noah Hanifin should be a high ranking priority for the Hurricanes management team and coaching staff.
Questions for discussion
What are your thoughts on Noah Hanifin’s development? Do you like where he is now about 15 games into his second season?
Do you think he is ready and/or would benefit from playing in a top 4 slot against tougher competition but also with a veteran partner?
Are you concerned that the revolving door in the slot next to him and the instability that comes with it could hinder his development?
How would you handle Noah Hanifin’s development for the 2016-17 season?