Intangible hockey laws dictate that, save for some generational exceptions, defencemen take longer to develop than forwards.
Elite scorers establish themselves in their early-20s and ride their primes until they putter out by 35. But defencemen need to hone their craft for years, smooth over scrunched bits in the tapestries of their game. Scoring goals is an innate talent; preventing them is a learned and calculated skill.
Blossoming as a premier NHL defenceman demands patience, poise, and a knack for trial and error. And the final decade of steadfast and masterful defence usually pays for the first handful of years as an apprentice anyways.
Thus, in the case of Noah Hanifin, some occasional hiccups should not muffle his hum as a legitimate top-four NHL defenceman already with years and years left to polish the lingering blots in his game. At 23-years-old, he will still harden and mature and solidify his brand of defence.
And so the fact that he suits the role he does now, well, is a thrilling prospect for the Calgary Flames—like a greenish, blemished banana a day away from perfect ripeness. Tasty today, delicious tomorrow.
2019-20 season summary
|GAMES PLAYED||GOALS||ASSISTS||POINTS||TOI/GP||5V5 CF%||5V5 CF% REL||OFZ%||PDO|
Hanifin engraved himself a perfect niche on the second pairing this past season, ranking third or fourth among Flames defenceman in essentially every statistical category. From basic production to intricate analytics, he cruised at roughly the same altitude as a fixture on that secondary tandem with Travis Hamonic and a routine quarterback on the second power play unit. (He was bumped off the PP unit when Erik Gustafsson arrived at the trade deadline, though.)
Hanifin actually tied for second among all Flames defencemen in points though this past season, chattering alongside Rasmus Andersson at the heels of Mark Giordano (with whom he and Andersson tied as well for the defenceman goal title with an absolutely steaming five tallies apiece) who only scored nine more. His average usage of over 21 minutes a night (third among defencemen…shocker…) certainly bolstered his possible contributions, too.
Regarding those standard ugly stats that record how often a player bruises, too, Hanifin also spearheaded the efforts behind the Flames blueline. His 89 blocks marked him third among all Flames defencemen, while his total of 82 hits crushed every other blueliner and vaulted him to the peak of the category.
To prematurely hush all the heckles and hollers though—yes, Hanifin did lead all Flames defencemen in giveaways this year with 63 documented blips (according to HockeyReference). But weighing risk before making plays belongs to that catch-and-correct system of development that steers a young defenceman towards fashioning himself a concrete and composed style of reliable defence. And to his credit, Hanifin must have resolved to erase every error he made as he led all Flames defencemen with 38 direct takeaways, too (from HockeyReference again).
Analytically, Hanifin’s numbers justify his case as an effective top-four defenceman on the Flames despite the turnover issues. His on-ice even-strength CF% nabbed him the fourth slot among Flames defencemen who played over 50 games for the squad, his on-ice even-strength xGF% accomplished same (although his xGF/60 topped the entire blueline; too bad he and Hamonic struggled to stifle quality chances in their own end), and he boasted the third-highest PDO among all defencemen, too. Through and through, top-four calibre on this team.
Compared to last season
Brandishing my bat to whack the horse corpse once again, a Calgary Flame witnessed a dip in production between the 2018-19 and 2019-20 season. It no longer qualifies as news.
Hanifin scored five goals and 33 points last season. Though he matched the goals this year, the assists plummeted. But if none of the forwards are scoring goals at the established clip, is it fair to chide a defenceman for failing to notch assists on their non-existent goals?
His CF% and xGF% and PDO all dropped a dash as well, but once again, the Flames flung fewer shots and generated less overall offence and converted fewer chances this year than last. On the hierarchy of Flames defencemen though, Hanifin fit into the same 2-4 spot in those categories across both seasons. The captain reports no unique turbulence for Hanifin on the career flight so far.
What about next season?
Hanifin is about to embark on the third season of his August 2018 six-year, $4.95 million AAV contract. He will turn 24 in January, taking some preliminary thwacks at his stride as an NHL defenceman but by no means stagnated. His floor is top-four, period.
Along with Andersson—his likely defensive partner next year—Hanifin seems to be a unanimous lock among Internet prophets for the Flames’ protected list ahead of the 2021 Seattle expansion draft. The organization seems to want him for the next three years to recline in front-row seats and watch him truly flower.
It is no crime to bet high on Noah Hanifin. Next year will be his sixth season in the NHL, and he doubtlessly wishes to crack 40 points for the first time in his career. Stronger productions and fewer turnovers alone will confirm the season a success, and so long as he adjusts and adapts his game every night, it is not an unattainable goal. And achieving it would prove crucial to muting the trolls and cementing his claim as a valuable defenceman in the league.