Towards the end of the 2016-17 season, Noah Hanifin stepped up in a big way for the Carolina Hurricanes. He saw a significant jump in ice time coupled with a new partner in Brett Pesce that provided a visible jump-start to his game, on and off the scoresheet.
Having a recurring partner not named Klas Dahlbeck or Matt Tennyson not only helped improve Hanfin’s numbers, but also his confidence. And after somewhat of a rocky defensive start to the new season, his offensive jump has shot him into the upper echelon of NHL blueliners.
Noah Hanifin still leading all NHL D at 200+ 5v5 minutes in CF%, on pace for 46 points, still rocking an xGF share comfortably above 55%— Kyle Morton (@k_morton9) November 29, 2017
The Hanifin of the past week or so, while still not as defensively sound as he could be (see goal: Arvidsson, Viktor), has been a true driver for a Canes team that has struggled to produce offense.
And while his offensive upside has been Hanifin’s calling card since his Boston College days, doing it in the NHL is a vast adjustment, and it’s one he seems to be coming around to making.
NHL speed is a wholly different animal from collegiate or junior speed. Not only are players themselves faster and stronger, but the decisions young players are forced to make are more often instinct instead of actual cause/effect choices than situations they may have experienced in lower levels of hockey.
For example, Hanifin’s goal in Columbus on Tuesday shows how effectively his offensive instincts have adapted through his young career. A 2-on-2 scrum in the corner sees the puck squirt out towards center, where a waiting Jeff Skinner picks it up.
Thanks to a 50/50 battle victory and a pinching Columbus defenseman, the Canes have numbers going forward if Hanifin jumps in. Being the cerebral player that he is, Hanifin takes a look to ensure that the time is right and does just that to make it a 3-on-2.
Don’t overlook the importance of Hanifin having his head up before he turns on the jets to get up the ice. Some defensemen might either jump without looking and miss a fast-approaching backchecker, while others may not even consider joining the attack. Hanifin takes a look and wisely makes the assessment to go ahead.
Some patented Skinner skating and a wise jump from Hanifin eliminates another Blue Jacket, and the play becomes a 2-on-1 with Skinner going off for a change.
Hanifin jumping in gives Skinner the chance to get a line change and keep the chance alive, rather than the alternative of Skinner/Ryan gaining the red line for a dump-in. And while they lose a man in Skinner, Hanifin and Ryan are well into the neutral zone, leading the way instead of waiting for 53 to get ahead.
Hanifin and Ryan then cross the blue line on a 2-on-1.
This is a subtle play, but an important one. Most 2-on1’s that fail do so because of indecisiveness and waiting too long to make a pass. By passing early, Hanifin forces the Blue Jackets to readjust, rather than play him as the puck-carrier all the way into the zone.
And while Ryan is hounded by Josh Anderson, he does well to protect the puck with his body and keep his stick ahead of him.
Ryan somehow gets a pass through Scott Harrington’s slide for Hanifin to tap-in.
Hanifin times this well. In most situations, it would be better to see him continuing to push towards the net to perhaps make a goaltender move early and force the defenseman to constantly adjust his gap, but his spacing works well here for Ryan’s feed.
You can see in the overhead shot that Harrington points to Ryan before Hanifin passes, signaling for a teammate to cover #7. But when the pass comes across, Harrington has to adjust to now cover a wholly different potential play. Instead of closing a gap on Hanifin, he is forced to stay in the middle, giving Hanifin a clearer lane to the net.
Another example of Hanifin’s offensive prowess further developing came against the Maple Leafs last week. Auston Matthews turns the puck over to Justin Williams, who finds Skinner with a slick cross-ice pass.
Watch Hanifin as soon as Williams turns with the puck. In an instant, his feet are churning to increase the Canes’ numbers up the ice. If he delays, Skinner’s options are more limited and he likely dumps the puck in.
Skinner finds the streaking Hanifin with a short pass.
Hainsey closes in on Skinner too quickly; his eagerness leaves an open lane for Hanifin that Morgan Reilly doesn’t cover. Again, if Hanifin isn’t joining the play instantly, Hainsey has a much easier time containing Skinner by himself.
From there, it’s all Hanifin.
That’s not going to win him any hardest-shot competitions, but it’s a solid shot from Hanifin or any defenseman. He has his head up to pick his spot, and places a deceptive shot over the glove of Andersen.
Hanifin’s game has plenty of room for improvement, particularly on the defensive side. But his ability to contribute offensively is shining brighter than ever. The more instances like this in which he makes smart decisions to join the attack, the more confidence Hanifin will have to make the key plays as a still-young NHLer.