118Noah Hanifin
Photo Credit: Sergei Belski/USA Today Sports

Noah Hanifin’s role with the Flames more important than ever

The Flames are in the midst of a blueline overhaul and are short on cap space. For both reasons, it’s not uncommon to hear Noah Hanifin’s name tossed around in trade speculation these days. The way I see it, though, Hanifin enters next season in an important position on the depth chart. I’d go as far to say that, with the way things look right now, Hanifin’s role has never been more crucial entering his third season in Calgary.

Uncertain depth chart

Hanifin enters next season as one of just two left shot defencemen with significant NHL tenure. The Flames have said goodbye to TJ Brodie, Erik Gustafsson, and Derek Forbort thus far in free agency. Travis Hamonic almost certainly won’t be coming back and Michael Stone’s future is uncertain at best. That means Calgary has watched five d-men walk while while adding one in Chris Tanev.

LD RD
Mark Giordano Rasmus Andersson
Noah Hanifin Chris Tanev
Juuso Valimaki Alex Petrovic
Oliver Kylington Alexander Yelesin
Connor Mackey

As it stands, the Flames are not deep on defence beyond their top four. Regardless of what you think of Hanifin, you can’t dispute the facts: he’s a very durable, everyday top four blueliner capable of playing 20+ minutes. Other than Giordano (more on him later), no one else on the left side has proven they can do that.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

We all have high hopes for Valimaki, and rightly so. He’s a highly touted prospect and is currently averaging a point-per-game with Ilves Tampere in Finland’s top league. Many, including myself, believe Valimaki projects to overtake Hanifin on the depth chart. But, with just 24 NHL games to his name, Valimaki has yet to prove he’s ready to take on the responsibility of regular top four minutes.

Additionally, Valimaki’s injury past is concerning. In each of his last three seasons, Valimaki has sustained a significant injury. It’s too early to say a 22-year-old defenceman is injury prone, but it’s also something Calgary has to take into account.

Kylington’s NHL resume isn’t much larger than Valimaki’s. In his 87 games with the Flames, Kylington has shown us plenty of promising flashes. He’s also given us lots of reason to question his defensive game, which remains suspect six years into playing professionally in North America. At 23, I still believe there is room for Kylington to develop and approach his high ceiling, but again, we haven’t seen it yet.

And then there’s Mackey, who looked like a bona fide NHLer during summer training camp prior to the restart, which is great. He’s also a college free agent signing with zero professional experience. I believe Mackey is going to push for a roster spot out of training camp, but like Valimaki, a job in the top four seems a little premature.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

All of this illustrates Hanifin’s importance entering the coming year. He’s never played fewer than 79 games over a full NHL season and appeared in every game in 2019-20. Yes, Hanifin has limitations and may never develop into the elite defenceman many projected heading into the 2015 NHL Draft. But he’s still a bona fide big league blueliner capable of playing in Calgary’s top four. That’s a crucial security blanket right now.

The Mark Giordano factor

For the first time since establishing himself as an elite NHL defenceman, I’m not sure what to expect from Giordano next season. The captain is coming off a typically strong regular season, albeit not of the Norris Trophy quality we saw in 2018-19. But what’s worrisome is the form we saw from Giordano in August.

The Flames were let down by numerous top players in the summer restart, so Giordano wasn’t alone. But against Winnipeg, and especially in six games vs. Dallas, Giordano looked ordinary as opposed to the ageless freak we’ve come to expect. Maybe it was a blip caused by four months off, or maybe it was just Gio not getting it done in the playoffs, something we’ve seen before. Or maybe it was age inevitably catching up.

Let’s face it: Giordano just turned 37 this month. It’s not unfathomable to think he’s finally reached the other side of the bell curve. That said, I wouldn’t put it past him by any stretch to come back next season at the high level we’re used to. The problem is, for the first time in ages, I think you can be somewhat uncertain about exactly what you’re going to get from Giordano.

If he’s back to form to start next season, then all is good. If not, though, that presents an issue for Calgary. That issue would be significantly exacerbated (please recognize my correct usage of this word) if the team didn’t have Hanifin behind Giordano on the depth chart.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Conclusion

I get that Hanifin can be frustrating at times. He’s prone to defensive miscues and is not a first choice to play high-leverage minutes. But Hanifin skates well, which feeds the team in transition, and has decent offensive upside. Hanifin has proven he can play steadily on a nightly basis and, at $4.95 million for the next four seasons, provides solid value.

The concept of trading Hanifin isn’t taboo. If it’s part of a deal that brings another top four defenceman back, it makes sense. Likewise, if we see positive progression from Valimaki, Kylington, and/or Mackey, and Hanifin is ready to be passed on the depth chart, go for it.

But to trade Hanifin without a replacement right now would be shortsighted in my opinion. He’s a viable NHL defenceman and will be more crucial to the Flames next season than he has been at any point since being acquired in June 2018. Right now, Calgary just isn’t deep enough to be without the safety net Hanifin provides.