With no disrespect meant to Elias Lindholm, Noah Hanifin is the more fascinating player acquired by Calgary in their blockbuster trade with Carolina over draft weekend.
Still just 21, Hanifin has already played three full NHL seasons and has an impressive 239 NHL games under his belt. In saying that, though, Hanifin has yet to prove he’s a bonafide top four defenceman. The ceiling is high for Hanifin, so let’s take a look at what the Flames have now and in the future with their newest blueliner.
Comparing Hanifin to the departed Dougie Hamilton straight across isn’t the most productive exercise. There’s no question Hamilton is the superior defenceman right now but also has almost double the NHL experience. Forgetting off ice innuendo for just a second, Calgary is going to miss Hamilton. He made a significant impact on the ice and helped the team create shots, chances, and goals.
Hanifin’s value, on the other hand, is rooted far more in the future and what he projects to be, which we’ll address later on. Right now, though, Hanifin doesn’t seem to be ready to play top pairing minutes, at least based on his first three seasons in the league.
From an underlying perspective, Hanifin has improved incrementally in his three seasons but has also seen some of the most offensively loaded time in the league. The last two seasons specifically have seen Hanifin fed a ton of offensive time; he saw the ninth-most offensive starts amongst NHL D-men in 2016-17 and that jumped to sixth last season.
There’s nothing wrong with that necessarily, specifically knowing Hanifin’s skill set. He’s a gifted skater and his offensive upside was one of his main positive attributes heading into the 2015 NHL Draft. In a lot of ways, Carolina was playing to his strengths in how they used him. It’s not unusual to see sheltered minutes for young defencemen; in reality, there are few 18- and 19-year-old blueliners who aren’t protected.
With that said, Hanifin has underperformed compared to his zone starts for three straight seasons, which is expected but also not ideal. The encouraging sign is his 2017-18 campaign. Yes, Hanifin saw a steady dose of offensive starts, but his possession numbers were strong. Ironically, only Hamilton and Mark Giordano had better even strength shot rates than Hanifin did last season.
2017-18 was also Hanifin’s best season to date impacting his team’s offence. With him on the ice at five-on-five, Carolina created 274 high danger chances compared to 224 against, good for a 55.0% rate (courtesy Natural Stat Trick). So, while Hanifin doesn’t look ready to play top pairing minutes come October, the evidence suggests he could be that player at some point down the road.
PROJECTING THE FUTURE
Bill Peters is the only NHL head coach Hanifin has ever played for, and that obviously won’t change this season. Peters has made it clear his plan is to put Hanifin on a pairing with Travis Hamonic to start the season, which presents some interesting conversations.
Does that mean Peters is planning to shelter Hanifin a whole lot less? Under Glen Gulutzan, Hamonic’s pairing with TJ Brodie played the toughest minutes on the team (by a slight margin), even though they were badly outperformed by the Giordano-Hamilton duo. Hamonic’s offensive start ratio was 50.0% last year, so I’m curious how a pairing with him and Hanifin will be deployed if indeed that remains the plan.
It would stand to reason we’ll see Hanifin used as a true top four defender at even strength, at least if you look at his ice time breakdown the last three seasons.
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While his overall minutes have gone up each year, it’s the even strength minutes that are more important for me. Among Hurricanes defencemen, Hanifin has gone from sixth to fifth to finally being a true top four blueliner last season. Knowing how much of a jump he made in year three, I would suggest we’ll probably see that trend continue in his first season with the Flames.
Where Hanifin has yet to make an impact is on the penalty kill; in his three seasons with the Hurricanes, he never averaged more than five seconds per game on the PK. Knowing he’s going to be coached by the same guy again this year, I don’t think we should expect Hanifin to be a shorthanded staple.
It’s impossible to project what Hanifin is going to turn into, because, well, projection is hard. From a physical standpoint, he’s got impressive tools that could absolutely see him round out into a top pairing defenceman. Could remains the operative word, however, because he’s not there yet.
What we do know is Hanifin has improved offensively and analytically in all three of his NHL seasons, which is encouraging. What’s unknown, and completely unpredictable, is when things level out. The Flames hope that’s not for a while, at least not until he’s entered the same tier as the defenceman he’s (kind of) replacing.