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With that we turn to arguably the most exciting of the Hurricanes blue liners – Noah Hanifin.
Entering the 2015-16 season, Noah Hanifin had probably the widest range of what was possible specifically for the current season. In general, even ultimately great defensemen usually take multiple years before they arrive at that destination but then there was that Aaron Ekblad anomaly from just last season.
Reasonable expectations based on recent defense draftees
A recent rundown of top drafted defensemen goes like this:
2014: Aaron Ekblad who was selected first overall and looked like a top pairing defenseman shortly thereafter is the anomaly against which the optimists will benchmark Noah Hanifin’s progress in his first season, but the log below will show clearly how uncommon his success is. Haydn Fleury (#7 overall) who Canes fans know well is playing in his second season in Canadian juniors since being drafted.
2013: Seth Jones (#4 overall) made the jump straight to the NHL, but his progression while solid has been more gradual probably in part to Nashville having enough good veterans to slot above him. Darnell Nurse who was selected #7 overall just starting his NHL transition in earnest (did play 2 NHL games last season) this season.
2012: This draft year featured a crazy defense-heavy class and saw 8 defensemen taken in the top 10. Many of this blue line master class (Ryan Murray, Morgan Rielly, Hampus Lindholm, Mathew Dumba, Derrick Pouliout, Jacob Trouba) are making progress, but it is interesting to note that none of these players played in the NHL in his draft year.
Prior years also leaned heavily toward the ‘it takes a couple years’ development of top-ranked defensemen.
The draft recap is a long-winded way of saying that while Aaron Ekblad and to some degree Seth Jones seem to offer hope for immediate NHL eliteness, that is not the reasonably expected norm. Much more common is a gradual path to greatness that takes multiple years. It is also another way of saying that the potential range for Noah Hanifin’s NHL readiness entering the 2015-16 season was HUGE.
Assessment through 11 games at the NHL level
After only 3 games in the NHL, I wrote HERE about my first impressions of Noah Hanifin’s game. I think much of that still holds now after 11 games in the NHL. It is still far too early to make any final judgments on his 2015-16 season, but through 11 games I think it is fair to say that he sits squarely in the middle of the players above. He has proven physically capable and ready to compete in the NHL. That puts him above the starting point of many other recent high draftees. But least so far, he has not measured up to the probably impossible level of Aaron Ekblads’ 2014-15 campaign though it is too early to call that a final conclusion.
Regardless, while I think that ‘where he is now’ is interesting to ponder, it should not be the focus. The focus is how quickly he can improve from his starting point to reach his top level and even more importantly how great that top level is.
- Looking at what he has done, not what he projects to do, the single most impressive thing about Noah Hanifin is his ability to defend 1-on-1 with the puck in front of him. He skates well, importantly backward too not just forward, and has enough trust that he maintains a good gap defensive gap and he also uses his stick and reach well. In this 1-on-1 situation that is about physical capability and not sorting things out, he grades out better than I would have hoped at this early stage of his development. This is incredibly important because defensemen who cannot defend get limited roles and have low ceilings.
- His physical ability in terms of size, strength and skating ability are already at an NHL level, and it is still reasonable to expect that he will make some improvements there from what he can already do at 18 years old.
- He has incredibly good hands, especially for a defenseman. I commented first during the summer rookie camp that he had the hands of a skilled forward and some finishing ability to boot. As a defenseman, the place where this comes into play the most is handling the puck at the point on the power play, but I expect it will also net a few extra goals here and there when he finishes off the rush.
- I love everything that I have seen from him in terms of maturity and coachability. Even elite young players have a journey in front of them to go from potential to on-ice production. He gets that despite his skill level he needs to be taught and learn. In the same vein he gets that his path to being a great NHL player is not just about clicking off calendar time but rather about learning and making specific improvements to his game.
Areas for improvement
Most of what I would say could take a bit longer for Noah Hanifin is what one would expect. At a general level, it is the details of getting nearly every small decision/play right shift after shift, night after night.
- He needs to eliminate a few bad habits with the puck on his stick. To buy time, he has a tendency to turn to his backhand to buy time. This is not a bad thing to protect the puck sometimes, but there are times when he could/should have read the situation a bit sooner and snapped a quick, saf forehand pass across instead. He has also been victimized or nearly victimized a few times when that outside turn leads to a backhand pass that occurs as he comes out of turning and is blind for a partial second just before he passes the puck.
- He can improve in terms of quickly and correctly working through a progression of options with the puck on his stick. At this early stage of his development, Hanifin turns the puck over in bad places a bit too much. Many of these occur when the first logical pass is not there. I think this is the 1 area where Brett Pesce is farther along. Hanifin is still learning to read when plan A is not available and quickly work forward to plan B, plan C or sometimes just eating the puck or turning it over in a harmless way versus making a potentially costly mistake under time pressure.
- Hanifin’s decision-making in when transitioning from offense to defense is another area for improvement. He has made the mistake multiple times of stepping up at the blue line against an opponent with the puck on his stick. At lower levels this might have worked for him since he could pressure lesser-skating forwards into chucking the puck up the rink, but at the NHL level he has been beaten multiple times in this scenario for odd man rushes the other way. I think this is another area that can be cleaned up pretty easily. As an NHL defenseman, one can pinch at the offensive blue line to hold in a loose puck or be a very close second to a race such that you can play the body on the opponent and prevent them from going the other way. But very simply if an opposing puck has the puck and is coming at you, it is time to build speed going backwards to stay on the right side of the puck.
When you net it out, I think the summary in terms of improvement for Noah Hanifin is that he stacks up well in terms of natural ability just as advertised but still has a ways to go in terms of tightening up his game and decision-making at NHL speed. Aaron Ekblad aside, I think that is a pretty normal place to be for a player his age even with his high-end potential.
Conversations and an informal poll suggest that I was (and probably still am) in the minority on this topic, but in this post on October 28, I suggested that a short stint in Charlotte might be best for Noah Hanifin. To be clear, it is not because I think that he is not good enough to compete at the NHL level, and I am not suggesting he spend the rest of the year in Charlotte to slide the first year on his entry-level contract. I just think his near-term (1-4 weeks) development could benefit from time at a lower level.
Without rehashing the entire October 28 post, my 2 biggest reasons are:
1) I was concerned that he was gradually getting too far away from his natural game and the reason he was the top defenseman in the 2015 NHL draft class. Instead of carrying the puck north-south, forcing pace and attacking opposing teams with his speed, he is playing a conservative buttoned-down game with a bunch of lateral and safe forward passes right now. While there is a need to adjust to the NHL game and there is sometimes a need to make the safe play as an NHL defenseman, the truly great version of Noah Hanifin comes from playing an attacking game and figuring out how to make it work in the NHL not downgrading to something that is safer for staying out of trouble right now.
2) I think there is value in letting a great player like Noah Hanifin play some hockey at a level where he can be great, not just a kid trying to survive. In Charlotte, the hope is that Hanifin would be a top half of the roster player, a leader and 1 of the players driving the path to winning hockey games. That is the mentality that he ultimately needs to play with to be great at the NHL level, and I do not like the idea of that mentality being put on the backburner for too long during an adjustment phase. As I wrote in the October 28 post, I think that could be part of Elias Lindholm’s current struggles. He is now more than 2 years removed from being great/better relative to the level of competition on the ice with him.
Acknowledging an alternative way
About 1 week removed from my original assessment, I actually feel even more strongly about the potential benefit of a short stint in Charlotte for Hanifin to reset briefly, work on a few things against slightly lesser competition and get back to being an every night difference-maker. This said, I also acknowledge the counter argument. The key is keeping a close eye on Noah Hanifin’s confidence level, evaluating whether he is improving from week to week and assessing what is best for his long-term development.
If you ask at the end of a week if he has made improvements from the previous week, that suggests the NHL level could be right. If his confidence is intact despite some inevitable learning moments, the NHL level is okay. And if he is not compromising his strengths and style of play to survive but rather is playing and adapting his game to a higher level then the NHL continues to be an appropriate vehicle for his growth.
When I net it out
While I am a bit concerned about what is the best path for him to get there, my optimism for where Noah Hanifin eventually ends up is actually higher than even the high level of optimism that I had when the Hurricanes drafted him. In terms of the basic ability to play without the puck (that defense thing), I am thrilled with his ability to defend the puck in front of him. The remaining part of that defense thing is the decision-making that is still a work in progress. And a more subtle but incredibly important is that I think he brings the right maturity and mindset to let coaches and other people help him. He does NOT have the ‘I am great / I’ll figure it out myself’ mentality that can hinder, delay and even destroy talented young players.
Noah Hanifin’s future is incredibly bright.
I still like him next to Justin Faulk in the future.
But I think it is going to take some time and patience to get there.