Noah Hanifin has all the makings of an elite defenseman.
Size? Yup, he’s a big body presence (TM) at 6′-3″ and 215 pounds.
Young? Ditto, he’s just 22 years old and the second youngest defenseman on the team. The only rearguard who is younger is Oliver Kylington, and only by 114 days.
How’s his skating? Well, before he was drafted, The Hockey Writers said this about Hanifin: “[He] is quite mobile. His skating propels the rest of his game. Hanifin has excellent edgework and rarely will you find him out of position. ” He wasted no time showing off his impressive skating at the NHL level too.
This incredible arsenal of skill, speed, and size made Hanifin the top defender in his draft class, taken fifth overall by the Carolina Hurricanes with the pick immediately after Mitch Marner.
At 22, you’d expect Hanifin to be right on the cusp of starting his NHL career. However, tonight’s game for the Calgary Flames will Hanifin’s 322nd game in the league. Despite all the tools in his belt, he simply hasn’t broken out as a top defender in the NHL. Over the course of four seasons his progression has been slow, he struggled to stand out among the Hurricanes’ deep blueline, and he wasn’t nearly the two-way threat he was in the NCAA.
It’s one of the reasons the Carolina Hurricanes opted to trade him to the Flames last season, but when a player with the skillset and pedigree of Hanifin becomes available, it’s hard to pass up the opportunity to add him to your team. The Flames traded for him hoping he could continue to improve, and that with time he would fully adapt his game to the NHL level and be closer to the player he was in junior.
The time might be now.
What you really want to see from your young players is continued progression year after year. Hanifin has delivered on that point, as last season was his most productive offensive season to date at 5v5. He posted 24 points in 80 games, good for eighth on the team second among defensemen. This was two points higher than his previous career high set with Carolina the year prior.
However, the 2018-19 season was a much bigger step forward for Hanifin than the two point increase would suggest. Hanifin bested his previous on ice career highs by 25 shot attempts (CF), 44 unblocked shot attempts (FF), 25 shots on goal, 14 goals, 49 scoring chances, and 19 high danger chances. His overall CF%, SCF%, and HDCF% were not career highs, but he did come from the Corsi powerhouse that is Carolina.
On paper, it looks like Hanifin was involved in significantly more offensive plays last season in Calgary than he was in any previous season he had in Carolina. Why did he only score a measly one more point than his career high? That answer might have a very simple answer: a combination of luck and comfort.
Over his three seasons with the Hurricanes, Hanifin’s shooting percentage averaged 4.1% at 5v5, and his final year in Carolina was a career high at 6.1%. Last season with the Flames, Hanifin shot just 3.2%. Even his expected goals output last season was almost at five, whereas he scored just three goals. As well, Hanifin saw a significant drop in shot volume. Last year, Hanifin had 21 fewer shots than the year prior. A healthy increase in shot volume and regression in shooting percentage could see Hanifin set new career highs this year.
on the Powerplay
Last season, Hanifin spent just 5% of his ice time on the man advantage, and virtually none of that time was on the first unit as Mark Giordano held down that position the entire year. His ~90 minutes of powerplay time was the lowest in his career by over 52 minutes. He may have had a career low five powerplay points last season, but on relative basis, it was actually the highest of his career at 3.3 powerplay points/60.
This season, Hanifin has not been given any powerplay time. However, if he continues to rise and Brodie continues to fall, Hanifin could take over Brodie’s current role on the second powerplay unit, and see his powerplay minutes spike as a result.
Hanifin has proven he can be an effective producer on the man advantage and there’s no reason to believe he won’t be given a chance to show that off at some point this season. When that time comes, it’s a good bet that he’ll run with it.
What can we expect?
There is reason to believe Hanifin is knocking on the door of a true breakout campaign. In our Sunday Census this past weekend, we polled Flames fans and asked who would be the team’s second highest scoring defender. Rasmus Andersson won the poll with 46% of the vote, but Hanifin was right behind him with 44%.
Prior to the start of the season, Hanifin said he felt more comfortable with the Flames this year. He identified offense as an area he aims to work on this season, be that jumping into the rush more often or making plays at the blueline. With a combination of higher shot volume, a higher shooting percentage, and Hanifin following through on his goals for this season, a 40+ point campaign is definitely within reach.
Image courtesy: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports