Noah Hanifin first took the ice to play for Boston College as a 17-year-old freshman defenseman last season.
“Not many 17-year-olds can do that, and not at Boston College,” Eagles coach Jerry York said. “You’re playing against 22- and 23-year-old men. It’s a big adjustment.”
In a few months, Hanifin will try to make an even bigger jump at 18. The first-round pick of the Carolina Hurricanes will seek to play in the NHL, against the best players in the world.
York said he hoped to have Hanifin return for a second season at BC. But Hanifin has signed his entry-level contract with the Canes, ready to begin his professional career.
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“He’s a terrific young man and a terrific prospect,” York said. “He’s a world-class skater. He wants to learn. He works hard. He’s a very humble kid with no ego to him.
“To me, he’s a 15-year pro. But like all 18-year-old defensemen, there’s an adjustment period when they move to the NHL. (They) need patience.”
In the past month, Hanifin has been drafted fifth overall by the Hurricanes and attended the team’s prospect training camp. He’ll next go to USA Hockey’s national junior team evaluation camp in Lake Placid, N.Y., with an eye toward playing for the U.S. in the 2016 World Junior Championship.
Not that Hanifin necessarily wants to play in the World Junior again. He would like to be playing regularly for the Hurricanes in late-December, when the championshipbegins in Finland.
But is he NHL-ready at 18?
“We don’t want to force him in there if he’s not ready,” Canes general manager Ron Francis said. “We’ll give him time to develop. I’m certainly not ruling it out, but we want to be careful and make sure we do what’s right for Noah.”
York, who has won five national championships during his coaching career, has been at Boston College since 1994. Among the players he has sent to the NHL are defensemen Brooks Orpik of the Washington Capitals, Rob Scuderi of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Canes forward Nathan Gerbe.
York said Hanifin “had to feel his way and figure it out” during his freshman season, making steady progress. “We were patient with him, just as Ron Francis and the Hurricanes will be.”
He’s got the hockey sense, he’s got the tools. It’s a matter of him understanding and making plays.
Canes’ director of defensemen development Glen Wesley on Noah Hanifin
Glen Wesley, the Canes’ director of defensemen development, liked what he saw of Hanifin at the prospect camp at PNC Arena.
“Just his composure,” Wesley said. “He skates real well and he’s going to continue to fill out and get stronger. He’s got the hockey sense, he’s got the tools. It’s a matter of him understanding and making plays.”
Nowhere to hide
Wesley was the third overall pick of the 1987 NHL Draft. He prepared for his first training camp with the Boston Bruins when he was 18. He played 79 games as a rookie, plus another 23 playoff games as the Bruins reached the 1988 Stanley Cup Final.
“It was a different circumstance for me,” Wesley said. “I broke in with a veteran team with a veteran back end. They were able to kind of ease me in. You can hide a little bit when you’re breaking in.”
The Bruins’ defensemen included Ray Bourque, Reed Larson, Gord Kluzak and Michael Thelven. Larson was 31, in his 13th NHL season.
But Hanifin may not be able to hide or ease in. He could join a Canes back end that could include young or inexperienced defensemen such as Ryan Murphy, Michal Jordan and Rasmus Rissanen.
A year ago Carolina drafted 18-year-old Haydn Fleury with the seventh overall pick. He came to training camp hoping to make the jump to the NHL, only to spend another season in junior hockey.
“We’re a younger team in transition, and there are some disadvantages of (young defensemen) taking a beating playing in your own end,” Wesley said. “That’s the biggest thing. If you want someone coming in to play, you want them to understand how to play in your own end and be able physically to handle the battles while being able to move the puck quick in transition.”
Hanfin can move the puck. And at 6-foot-3, 207 pounds, he appears to have a sturdy enough frame to take some of those defensive-zone beatings. He also has spent time analyzing video of such NHL defensemen as Duncan Keith of the Chicago Blackhawks or Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings, noticing how they’re able to skate the puck out of trouble. He also studied former Detroit Red Wings star Nicklas Lidstrom’s his ability to take away time and space.
Hanifin said he can “play rough” if he needs to, but he would rather rely on his skating, smarts and body positioning like Lidstrom.
Defenseman Aaron Ekblad, 19, of the Florida Panthers was able to make the quick transition last season. The first overall pick of the 2014 draft, he made the jump from the Barrie Colts of the Ontario Hockey League, played 81 games and earned the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year.
“The old school says you don’t know what you have with a defenseman until he’s 23 or 24 but we’re seeing more young defensemen step in and have success,” Francis said. “I know he was (drafted) first overall, but Ekblad didn’t miss a beat.”
Newly hired Charlotte Checkers coach Mark Morris worked with Ekblad last season an assistant coach with the Panthers. While few doubted Ekblad’s talent, work ethic or dedication, Morris said the Panthers had a plan for handling the young D-man.
“With Ekblad, we tried to put him out there in some situations where we knew he’d probably be successful,” Morris said. “At the same time, you have to throw them a bone, so to speak, and put them in pressure situations and see how they handle it. You can’t give them too much, too early. They’ll lose confidence.”
Ekblad had a few rough moments in preseason but was paired with veteran defenseman Brian Campbell early in the season. It was a fairly smooth year as Ekblad finished with 12 goals, 27 assists and a plus-12 rating.
After the U.S. camp in Lake Placid, Hanifin will compete for the Hurricanes in the prospects tournament in Traverse City, Mich., a September event hosted by the Red Wings. Then it’s the Canes’ training camp and preseason exhibition games.
“He certainly looks strong enough and skates well enough,” Francis said. “It’s tough in the one week of (prospects) development camp. There’s not a lot of real reads. When we get to Traverse City, we’ll get a look at that group of young defensemen together there and then into camp against the big guys.”
Hanifin, who will turn 19 on Jan. 25, could start the year with the Canes or with the Charlotte Checkers, Carolina’s American Hockey League affiliate. But he clearly wants to be with the Canes.
“My goal is to play in the NHL,” he said. “I don’t want to play in the American (Hockey) League. That’s what my focus is.”