On the day of the NHL Draft last June, the Carolina Hurricanes held the fifth overall selection. With Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel guaranteed to go #1 and #2, that fifth slot represented the last pick among the "big five" prospects that had grabbed all the headlines going in.
It was widely anticipated that the 'Canes would have the privilege of picking whichever of Mitch Marner, Dylan Strome, and Noah Hanifin that Arizona and Toronto left for them. There was no losing for any of the three teams. Hurricanes management and the team's fan base certainly felt like they had won when it was Hanifin who slipped to number five.
After agreeing to an entry-level contract at prospects camp, Hanifin went on to make the team out of training camp. He ultimately would make up one-third of Carolina's trio of stellar rookie defensemen that defined the team's 2015-2016 season.
There's good reason that Hanifin was widely considered to be the best defenseman available in last year's draft. To put it simply, there are crucial aspects of the game that he performs at a higher level than just about anyone.
The most obvious elite trait that Hanifin possesses is his skating ability. While he had some detractors in his draft year, every scout unanimously crowed about his speed and control while in motion. He showed all of that and more with regards to his skating in his rookie season, but you all know that already.
Beyond just his outstanding skating prowess, a statistical analysis of Hanifin's rookie season shows a strength that not many experts billed him as having-- playmaking. You may remember some comments made by TSN's Craig Button (who ranked Hanifin 12th in the draft class) on Hanifin's offensive game during NBCSN's broadcast of the draft. His quote went like this, "My concern is about the offensive creativity. Everything up to the offensive blue line is terrific... But when you get to the offensive blue line, the ability to see plays, the ability to make pinpoint passes to thread defenders and break down defenses, it's an area of his game that I haven't seen a strong demonstration to this point."
Now this may come as somewhat of a surprise to many of you, but Craig Button was wrong. He was very wrong. That was not the Noah Hanifin that we saw this season. The Noah Hanifin that we saw this season was nothing short of dynamic in the offensive zone, and he was fantastic in terms of finding teammates with plays that led to goals.
As per stats.hockeyanalysis.com, there were 168 defensemen who played at least 750 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey last season. Of those 168, Hanifin ranked 15th with 10 primary assists. When you adjust for ice time, Hanifin moves up to 13th with 0.51 primary assists per 60 minutes.
Now you may be wondering if looking at primary assists is a fair way to determine whether or not a defenseman is good offensively. Here are the 12 names ahead of Hanifin on that list (starting with #12 and moving to #1), I'll let you decide if these names pass the smell test: Klingberg, Brodie, Hedman, Demers, Karlsson, Pietrangelo, Parayko, Subban, Josi, Krug, Carlson, and Markov. With the possible exception of Jason Demers, I don't think there's a good argument for saying that any of those players are not elite offensive defensemen. So if we hold that being elite in terms of generating primary assists has a strong correlation with the quality of a defender's offensive game, we therefore have to conclude that Hanifin, as an 18/19 year old, was highly likely an elite offensive defenseman in just his first season in the league.
But Hanifin's offensive excellence did not stop with simply creating opportunities for his teammates. He also fared very well in generating chances for himself.
Thanks to war-on-ice.com, we know that Hanifin generated 16 scoring chances that fit into their definition as being "high danger." To my knowledge, the primary determinant in how they classify shot quality is the location from which the shot was taken. How many times did we see Hanifin start with the puck at the point, go down the half-wall, protect the puck with his arm, move in tight on the net, and get a shot off only to have it not go in? My memory says it's a lot, especially in the second half of the season. With any luck, Hanifin probably could have had three or four more goals than he did.
Regardless, back to the point. Those 16 even-strength high danger chances placed Hanifin at 15th among NHL defensemen. Here once again are the names that were ahead of him in that list, and some of these may sound familiar: Hedman, Hamilton, Brodie, Pietrangelo, Erik Johnson, Krug, Josi, Trouba, Daley, Burns, Klingberg, Ekholm, Karlsson, and Byfuglien.
So, we have two possibilities here. Possibility number one is that it's a complete coincidence that Hanifin ranked in the top 15 among 168 heavy-minute-chewing defensemen in one offensive category that measures how well a player sets up teammates and another that measures how good a player is at creating scoring chances for himself. Possibility number two is that some of the scouts who undersold his offensive skill set were wrong all along, and that Hanifin has incredibly elite offensive upside that he's already displaying as a teenager that we can only expect to grow as he develops as a player. I'll let you be the judge of which of those is reality.
While I could go on for quite a long time about how quietly fantastic Hanifin was in the offensive zone last season, I feel as though I'd be remiss to not touch on how solid he was both in the neutral zone and the defensive zone.
In the neutral zone especially, Hanifin really passed the eye test for me. I wish I had had the time to track zone exits and entries this past season (maybe one day), but I would venture a guess that Hanifin was very good at carrying the puck out of the defensive zone and into the offensive zone with control. His skating ability and above-average hockey sense lend themselves nicely to strong performances in that department.
In the defensive end, there was definitely a learning curve for the rookie. Once again using war-on-ice's high danger scoring chance data at even-strength, the full season picture is not the prettiest. Hanifin was on the ice for more high danger chances against the Hurricanes than any of the team's other defensemen, and Carolina controlled just 45.72% of such chances with Hanifin on the ice, but that number may have been skewed by circumstances that were outside of his control.
Like the rest of the team, Hanifin's possession numbers struggled mightily after the Hurricanes moved Eric Staal, Kris Versteeg, and John-Michael Liles at the trade deadline. According to my math, Hanifin's share of on-ice high danger chances was a brutal 32.54%. That rough stretch ruined the solid mark that Hanifin had of 50.42% prior to those trades.
Now one could see those numbers and conclude that Hanifin's scoring chance possession was driven by the forward quality of his teammates, but I don't think that's a fair assessment. The forward groups that Carolina was throwing out their post-deadline were probably of less quality than anything else they'll have for the rest of Hanifin's career, and while Staal and Versteeg are pretty solid players, they aren't Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. It's unlikely that Hanifin having a positive share of on-ice scoring chances was solely driven by how good those two were, and it's much more likely that the downturn could be explained by the lack of forward depth throughout the lineup.
Moving forward, I have very little doubt that Hanifin will be able to establish himself as legitimate top pairing defenseman in this league. Offensively, he's pretty much there already, and the defense is something that will surely come with experience. As far as possession goes, the toolbox of skills that he possesses is highly conducive to being able to dominate the puck.
As far as next season goes, look for him to see significant time on the top pairingnext to Justin Faulk. If that won't be the case, Jaccob Slavin will take that spot, and Hanifin then would almost definitely be playing on the second pairing with Brett Pesce.
I'm expecting big things from Hanifin and the rest of the Hurricanes in his sophomore year, and you should be too.