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Canucks Must Tread Lightly With Noah Hanifin

The 21-year-old has proven himself offensively, but can he be a legitimate top pairing defenceman?

Carolina Hurricanes v Nashville Predators
Noah Hanifin #5 of the Carolina Hurricanes plays the puck against the Nashville Predators at Bridgestone Arena
Photo by Sanford Myers/Getty Images

Elliott Friedman did his best to stir up some excitement in a sleepy Vancouver market.

Following the finale of the Conference Finals, Friedman vehemently shook the Canucks fan base awake by stating that Carolina Hurricanes defenceman Noah Hanifin is be targeted by a “stealth team.”

That team was the defensively-depleted Vancouver Canucks.

Wild debates about Hanifin have ensued, and the fan base seems split on whether the Canucks should make a push for the 21-year-old defenceman. The fifth overall pick from 2015 has already amassed 239 NHL games, and has seen steady progression over his three years in Carolina.

NHL: Ottawa Senators at Carolina Hurricanes
Carolina Hurricanes forward Warren Foegele (37) and Carolina Hurricanes defensemen Noah Hanifin (5) celebrate there win against the Ottawa Senators at PNC Arena.
James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

This season was Hanifin’s best season to date. He posted 10 goals and 22 assists in 79 games. Seeing a young defenceman hit double digits in goals must be bedroom fodder for Jim Benning, especially when he looks at the offensive production from his current defensive corps.

Since Hanifin is so young, some might believe that his game has even more room to grow. With that being said, he is inching towards the Erik Gudbranson 300-game plateau for defencemen. His potential growth and what the Canucks believe would have a huge impact on a potential deal. To better understand this, I enlisted the help of Canes Country writer Brett Finger to analyze some of Hanifin’s biggest assets.

Hanifin’s Best Attributes

On the ice, Hanifin has the ability to flat out fly. Here are some observations from Finger.

“When he’s going well and playing at his best, he is moving his feet in all three zones. When he gets a few strides going, it’s very difficult to stop him.”

Hanifin was selected to participate in the fastest skater competition at the All-Star game earlier this year. While most don’t care about the gimmicky weekend, Hanifin’s inclusion in the competition, and the weekend as a whole, was noteworthy.

Despite the comments from some naysayers, Hanifin is really an underrated offensive defenceman. He’s topped 20 assists in back-to-back seasons, and added goal-scoring to his arsenal this season.

During his first two seasons, Hanifin averaged 115 shots with a 3.5 shooting percentage. In his third season, he shot the puck 165 times and potted ten goals. He scored more goals than any other Hurricanes defenceman, including the offensively-inclined Justin Faulk and perenially underrated Jaccob Slavin.

“He’s a very talented offensive player, despite what some people have been saying on TSN lately,” Finger said. “In the first half of the 2017-18 season, he took strides in his on-ice vision and puck movement, and he gained confidence in shooting the puck. Through January, he was the Hurricanes’ most dynamic defenceman with the puck on his stick.”

With Faulk occupying a role on the Hurricanes top power play unit, most of Hanifin’s production came at even-strength. He led all Hurricanes defencemen with 1.12 points-per-60 at even-strength. That was also good enough for 46th in the NHL among 244 defencemen to play above 250 minutes.

Where Hanifin Could Improve

While it’s easy to become enamoured with his offence, it’s clear that Hanifin has room for improvement on the defensive side of the puck. Although his Corsi and scoring chance differential numbers look good, there are factors at play that inflate those stats.

In Carolina, Hanifin wasn’t used to face top-end offensive players. Hanifin and partner Trevor van Riemsdyk had the highest percentage of offensive zone starts among Carolina defencemen. They also faced the easiest competition as well, based on their opposition’s ice time. Even the subpar defensive duo of Faulk and rookie Haydn Fleury faced stiffer competition that the Hanifin-van Riemsdyk duo.

Carolina Hurricanes v Boston Bruins
Noah Hanifin #5 of the Carolina Hurricanes checks Noel Acciari #55 of the Boston Bruins in the third period of a game at TD Garden on February 27, 2018 in Boston, Massachusetts.
Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Finger outlined some of Hanifin’s defensive struggles.

“Hanifin has to keep working on his defensive zone reads, strength, and offensive zone pinches. In the defensive end, he has a tendency to get lost and lose track of who he is supposed to be covering. In front of his own net, he has to be stronger on opponents and not get beat to loose pucks in and around the crease.”

This description sounds eerily similar to that of Ben Hutton. Although Hutton’s underlying numbers on on defence looked okay, he often had trouble keeping track of who he was covering.

Much like Hutton (and most hockey players), having confidence is key to performing well. It seems as if Hanifin’s confidence wavered at points during the season.

“There’s a mental aspect to all of this as well. When he is confident, he tends to be one of the most noticeable (in a good way) players on the ice, but when he hits a rough patch, the opposite is true. He needs to be more consistent,” Finger said.

Dissecting a Deal for Hanifin

Based on what assets the Canucks have to give up, any deal involving Hanifin would seemingly include the seventh overall pick. Does trading the seventh overall pick for an already established NHL player really make sense for the rebuilding Canucks?

That completely depends on Jim Benning’s outlook on Hanifin. You could argue that he’s already a top-four defender at 21, with above average offensive production with a subpar defensive game.

What Benning would truly be paying for in a trade is the expected potential of Hanifin. If he’s going to make a trade for the Boston native, you really have to believe that Hanifin will be better than any player available at seventh overall.

Depending on your point of view you could argue that Hanifin has either been lucky or unlucky throughout his career. His goals-for percentage at even-strength this season was 45.28, just slightly below his career average of 45.61%. However, his career expected goals-for percentage is 50.27. This season, it was 54.47%.

One the one hand, you could say that bad goaltending and a subpar career PDO (98.1) has made Hanifin look like a worse defenceman at even-strength. On the other hand, you could say that despite easier matchups and optimal usage, he still fails to defend properly in his own end.

That differing logic makes it hard to justify trading away a top-ten pick. It’s only defensible if you’re convinced that he can grow into a top pairing defender. Here’s Finger’s take on Hanifin’s possible progression.

“Being 21-years-old, Hanifin has a lot of room to grow and, given how he has progressed thus far, there’s reason to believe that years four and five will be the years wherein he really takes that next step as a player - similar to how Seth Jones’ development has gone.”

“He has potential to produce upwards of 45-50 points in an 82-game NHL season and be a guy you can count on late in games, as he has a knack for scoring clutch goals and making good plays in high-pressure situations. Again, his defensive play will likely be the thing to watch as he progresses through his NHL career. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see him become a top-pairing guy in the next few seasons, be it with Carolina or any other team.”

It’s hard to believe that Seth Jones has already been around for five seasons, and it was really only in the last year where he established himself as a number-one defenceman. That shows how long it can take for defenceman to truly hit their peak, and there’s a good chance that Hanifin hasn’t hit his yet.

Gambling the seventh overall pick and most likely other assets for the 21-year-old rearguard is a risk, and it certainly would put Hanifin under the microscope in one of hockey’s most avid markets. Hanifin would likely play tougher minutes in Vancouver, although power play time would be his for the taking. He would certainly get the chance to increase his offensive production, but would he thrive or slide with tougher minutes on defence?

Whether you’re in favour of a Hanifin trade or not, one thing is for sure: a trade involving Hanifin is based on potential. By trading the seventh overall pick and other assets to acquire him, you’re banking on him becoming a top-pairing defenceman.

It’s a hell of a gamble for someone in Benning’s position to make, even if it makes for a fascinating debate. Making a deal for him probably isn’t wise, but it would sure hold that Cory Schneider for Bo Horvat intrigue in the years to come.