SUNRISE, Fla. - The NHL Draft tends to be full of surprises, both good and bad. On Friday night, the Carolina Hurricanes were gifted one of the best surprises they had received in years.
For most of the season, Boston College defenseman Noah Hanifin had been pegged as a top-three selection. But after the first four picks were made, all forwards, there sat Hanifin awaiting his name to be called. After some deliberation at the Canes' draft table, the Canes snapped up Hanifin with the fifth pick. "It's an honor," he said. "It's been such a long ride to get to this point. It's pretty unbelievable."
Canes general manager Ron Francis spoke of his team's newest defenseman in terms that wouldn't have sounded out of place to describe Francis himself in the 1981 draft. "He's a very, very mature kid," he said. "You can tell he's very focused, very driven. He wants to be an NHL player, and he's going to do everything he can to have a great career."
The first college player drafted in the first round by the Canes since David Tanabe in 1999, Hanifin had a good idea that the Canes were hot on his trail after speaking with the team multiple times over the past few days. "I got a really good vibe from the staff there," he said. "I wanted to go to a place that wanted me, and they saw something in me. I'm extremely proud to be wearing this sweater right now."
After the first two picks went off as expected, Connor McDavid to the Oilers and Jack Eichel to the Sabres, there was a bit of a surprise before the Canes made their selection. Neither the Arizona Coyotes or Toronto Maple Leafs moved their pick, and both took forwards, Dylan Strome and Mitch Marner respectively.
That left the Canes with a decision they likely didn't expect to make, with both Hanifin and Ivan Provorov remaining on the board and no shortage of suitors for the fifth pick, Francis admitted. "We had a lot of conversations," he said. "We never really came that close [to trading the pick]. We felt we had a good chance of getting a player we wanted at 5, and there wasn't really a deal that we were comfortable with."
Amateur scouting director Tony MacDonald, while not admitting outright that Hanifin was the Canes' man, certainly indicated that they were more than happy to see him fall to the Hurricanes. "He was certainly a guy that we had our eye on. We had him ranked in a position where we were going to take him at 5, and you don't know he's going to get there. We were in good shape for the players that we wanted to take."
Perhaps cognizant of the last time the team took a Russian defenseman in the first round, the Canes decided to make the move for Hanifin, and MacDonald couldn't contain his excitement over the team's good fortune.
"Things rather fell into place for us," he said. "We ended up with a player that we wanted. He's a big man who skates very well, and his game is still evolving. We haven't seen the best of Noah Hanifin yet, and what we have right now is a pretty good player. The upside is significant."
Hanifin expects to contribute at both ends of the ice. "I can contribute offensively and play a lot of minutes," he said. "I'll play against the top lines of other teams. I'm a hard-working guy. My parents made lots of sacrifices to help me get here, and I'm going to take those characteristics with me to Carolina."
Hanifin has made no commitments either way about whether he would turn professional or return to BC for his sophomore season. He indicated that he would speak to his family and make a decision soon, but MacDonald said that the team believes Hanifin is capable of stepping in right away on a professional blue line, whether with the Canes or the AHL Charlotte Checkers.
"With young defensemen, it's asking a lot for them to come in and play right away. I think we'd like to give him that opportunity to prove that he's ready to go."
Hanifin became part of a historic night for college hockey, with three collegiate players being selected in the first eight picks, the most ever that early in the draft. In addition to Hanifin and Eichel, the Columbus Blue Jackets took Michigan's Zach Werenski with the eighth selection.
The confident Hanifin, who brought a 35-strong entourage to the BB&T Center on Friday night including his high school coach and his personal trainer, certainly has set his personal bar high, indicating that his favorite current NHL player is Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith. "I love the way he plays. He can play thirty minutes against the top lines every night. I don't see why I can't be like that five or six years down the road."
And there's one other area in which Hanifin would like to emulate Keith: silverware.
"I will work as hard as I possibly can to help [the Canes] win the Stanley Cup."