When Ron Hainsey was moved to Pittsburgh on Thursday for a second round pick in 2017 and Danny Kristo, I was obviously excited by the return. As a close follower of all things prospects and NHL Draft, the second round selection the Canes received will provide GM Ron Francis even more ammo for his arsenal to not only improve the system further, but open options for improving the NHL roster for 2017-18.
However, it wasn’t the pick or the prospect or the possibilities for the summer of 2017 that I was most excited for following the trade. It was the fact that Noah Hanifin finally may find some on-ice consistency by moving into the teams top four defensemen.
Watch Noah Hanifin's play miraculously improve for the rest of the season. He's going to be helped most by the Hainsey move.— Kevin LeBlanc (@kleblanchockey) February 23, 2017
I still believe that Hanifin has the most to gain by Hainsey being moved, and could provide a boost for the Canes in the last 25 games of the season. He hasn’t had the type of breakout season that many fans were hoping for after a good rookie campaign in 2015-16, but let’s not forget that he’s a 20-year-old playing 17 minutes a night at the NHL level while learning on the job. His ability to be in a more stable defensive pair will be integral in his development moving forward.
By The Numbers
A closer look at Hanifin’s pairing combination percentages this season at even strength:
Noah Hanifin - Matt Tennyson: 52.2%
Noah Hanifin - Klas Dahlbeck: 20%
Noah Hanifin - Ron Hainsey: 10.7%
Noah Hanifin - Justin Faulk: 9.7%
Noah Hanifin - Ryan Murphy: 7.5%
The inconsistency of partners for the 20-year-old, and the inability of one of the fringe Hurricanes defensemen to grab the sixth spot in the Canes defensive group hasn’t helped Hanifin at 5-on-5 this season. His time-on-ice has dropped by over a minute from a year ago, and he only has eight points at 5-on-5 though 57 games. Considering Hanifin’s offensive zone starts have jumped from 55% in his rookie season (where he had 15 even strength points), to 62% this season, you would expect a jump in production.
Conversely, Brandon Carlo (Zdeno Chara - 73.7%), Zach Werenski (Seth Jones - 84.3%) and Josh Morrissey (Dustin Byfuglien - 82.1%) are all examples of players who are similar to Hanifin in age, who have caught on (and thrived) with a consistent partner.
The Case for Brett Pesce as Hanifin’s Partner
Let’s think about what many of the best puck carrying defensemen in the NHL have in common. Brent Burns has Paul Martin. Duncan Keith has Niklas Hjalmarsson. Erik Karlsson has Marc Methot. Victor Hedman has Anton Stralman. You get the idea. Each of these players have a partner who can work within the constraints of their offensively dynamic pair and allow him to thrive. They are cohesive units that spend high percentages of their time-on-ice together.
Given Bill Peters’ desire to keep right and left handed pairs together, Pesce seems like the most likely pair for Hanifin moving forward in the reshuffled top-four following the Hainsey trade.
Hanifin’s best offensive stretch in the 2015-16 season was in the last quarter of the season. In his final 22 games, the rookie defensemen put up nine of his 22 points, including six at even strength. His most frequent partner during that time? Brett Pesce. Of Hanifin’s 24 career even strength points, 21% have been with Pesce on the ice. Pesce has does a great job of positioning himself defensively, and has the ability to pick the puck up and immediately make a fast decision to carry or distribute the puck. He has been a integral part of the possession monster that was the Pesce-Slavin pair all year. His presence will only help Hanifin to form some consistency in his play.
Justin Faulk and Jaccob Slavin have great numbers in a limited sample size with a 55.24% CF over the last two seasons when paired together. As good as Pesce and Slavin have been over the last two seasons when paired with each other, splitting them up should help to raise the play of both Faulk and Hanifin. This would allow a top-four to grow together, formulating some stability and roles for the future.
Before last night’s win over Ottawa, Hanifin was mired in a slump with no points in 11 games and a minus-13 rating. Playing alongside Pesce last night, Hanifin finished with his first positive plus-minus game since January 20th.
With Hainsey out of the mix and Hanifin moving into the top-four, the talent of Hanifin’s partner increases, whether it be Pesce or Slavin. That should allow him to close the season similar to how he did a year ago. His time-on-ice should increase, and his 5-on-5 stats should show improvement.