And just like that we are 3 games into Noah Hanifin’s career as an NHL defenseman. He obviously entered training camp with incredibly high long-term expectations and also a fairly high chance that he would start immediately at the NHL level. 3 games is NOT enough time to make any calls on his long-term future, but I think it is enough time to get a first impression about where he is, what he needs to work on and where he might be headed.
Physical readiness. At the most basic level, I think Noah Hanifin has shown that he is ready to compete at the NHL level. Many players regardless of skill and talent level just are not ready for the NHL at age 18 because they are not yet mature enough physically. At 6-3 and 205 pounds easily with above average skating ability Noah Hanifin is physically ready to play in the NHL and has shown it over 3 games. He does not at all look like a boy against men out there physically.
Game speed/decision-making. In terms of his readiness for playing the game at NHL speed and sorting things out, he has looked better than expected. The volume and level of mistakes he makes are high for a good NHL defenseman, but I think that is to be expected early on after making a huge jump from college straight to the NHL. He will need to tighten up his game, and I think he will over the course of the season. The question is how much and how fast. Aaron Ekblad seemed to figure it out almost instantly whereas even good defensemen can take 2-3 years to put it all together.
Where is he now? I think Noah Hanifin is still very much in the figuring it out/testing the waters stage of his development. Right now, he is sometimes deliberate with the puck on his stick mostly in a good way while he aims for safe and sound first before hopefully adding dynamic later. He had a lightning rush up the ice for a pretty give and goal in a preseason game. He had 1 of those rushes yesterday versus Florida, but I think that is the first we have seen of that in 3 regular season games. You can see him pushing forward cautiously and assessing things like how quickly passing lanes close up, how much room he needs to skate, when he needs to get rid of the puck versus a forechecker, etc. I think he is still calibrating his game to the speed of the NHL game which is to be expected.
What is next? I think the first transition point in Hanifin’s development comes when he starts pushing pace more up the ice. To be honest, I think because both Hanifin and Murphy are focused on not making mistakes first, the duo has been disappointing with respect to creating speed and scoring chances off the rush. They have both tended to be a bit deliberate moving the puck with maybe more D-to-D passes than ideal for a pairing with 2 players both capable of flying north-south with the puck on his stick. Not sure if it is just a matter of building comfort level first (again it has only been 3 games) or if Coach Steve Smith needs to push it a bit pretty soon here.
Canes fans are having fun watching Hanifin as is, but I think it is as much optimism and anticipation as anything truly spectacular. “He looks NHL ready.” “He skates well.” “Oh look, he made a nice pass there.” Etc. When the up ice rush from Tuesday starts happening on a more regular basis, the fun really begins. For Noah Hanifin specifically, I think it is just a matter of getting enough calibration to the speed of the NHL game, figuring out what he can and cannot do skating-wise and then flipping the ignition switch. When he starts picking his spots to fly in a straight line is when the truly exhilarating part of the Noah Hanifin development process commences.
Biggest positive so far. He looks very good as a defender, especially 1-on-1. He is confident enough in his skating to keep tight gaps and uses his reach and stick very well. Within the “young skating defenseman” category, too often it means that the player skates really well going forward with the puck but still needs to learn how to play defense and sometimes even improve skating technique-wise going backward defending. I think that was exactly the case with Ryan Murphy when he arrived with the ability to fly up the ice going forward with the puck but was actually not that great going backward and defending without the puck. That is not the case with Noah Hanifin and is for me the biggest positive from his first dip in the NHL.
Biggest thing to work on. He needs to tighten things up in terms of moving the puck. Right now, he is prone to too many of the bad variety of turnover that lead quickly to a scoring chance against. He passes the puck pretty well when he gets it right, so I think the upside is there. I think it is also important to note that where he is right now probably matches the norm for a brand new NHL defenseman.
When I net it out, I think Noah Hanifin is off to a good start and at least slightly ahead of schedule at this early stage in his development.
The biggest thing for me is watching for him to gain the comfort level to start picking his spots to use his speed to push pace and help create offense off the rush more regularly. That is when the real fun starts and when it becomes incredibly fun to watch develop even if it does come with a few mistakes.