Our One on One with the Potential Franchise Defenseman
Unfortunately, the answer I’ve had to give to that question in its multiple forms is one as a self-proclaimed hockey guy and writer that I certainly wasn’t proud of. I just didn’t feel equipped to provide a suitable assessment of the 6’3” defenseman from Norwood, Massachusetts. Quite simply, my reply was, “I don’t really know all that much about the player.” Sure, I could tell you his point total as a freshman or what I saw in the few games that I had watched him play while he was a member of the US World Junior team. I suppose I could have thrown my two cents in, though truthfully, that’s how much my opinion would have been worth at the time.
After doing stories for LeafsHub.com on the other two players ranked predominantly between 3 and 5, putting hours into watching prospects both live and on my OHL package, talking to coaches, scouts and the players themselves, I didn’t feel I should weigh in on the top ranked defenseman in the 2015 draft class just yet. In all fairness, how many of us really know Noah Hanifin’s game like we do the OHL forwards we’ve been photo-shopping into Leafs jerseys? He’s been left out of the mix quite often. Not so much because he’ll go at #3 to Arizona, which is very possible, but because I believe the unknown factor that some attach to the NCAA has left many in the dark. So that’s what I’ve been up to. Trying to learn everything possible about the player, both on and off the ice. Over the past few weeks when asked about the Boston College defender, the answer I was able to respond with had morphed into, “Let me get back to you. I’m working on it.”
A step in the right direction at least. Speaking of the right direction, it seems the Maple Leafs are perhaps heading that way. Finally, ownership and management are prepared to do what’s necessary in today’s NHL landscape, which is to build this team properly from the ground up. With the organization recently adding the presence of Mike Babcock, the excitement for the future is amplified tenfold. However, this enthusiasm doesn’t stem from the hope that one of the top coaches in hockey can turn this thing on a dime; it’s quite the contrary. The feeling around the Maple Leafs fan base is that they are not only ready to accept the “pain is coming” approach, but that they actually embrace it. Nobody is kidding themselves about the work that remains. This will be a long process and one that will involve steps and stages. There are no steps bigger than the ones up the stairs to the draft stage on June 26th at the 2015 Entry Draft.
Now that brings us to the present as we are less than a month away from the day Leafs Nation is eagerly anticipating. After receiving the help of Boston College’s coaching staff in providing me with shift by shift game footage, and with Noah’s cooperation and graciousness with his time, I’ve graduated to feeling comfortable in giving an extended comment on the player. I’ll share some of my amateur scouting report shortly, but first, if we are trying to find out “Who is Noah Hanifin,” then who better talk to than Noah himself. It has been a tremendously enjoyable experience learning about the young man and hearing the enthusiasm in his voice when he talks hockey. I’m sure you’ll feel that energy coming through as LeafsHub.com goes one on one with Noah Hanifin.
Jude: I don’t know if misconception is the correct term, but there are several differing reports on the makeup of your game. When we hear your name in Toronto, it has often been associated with the term “stay at home” defenseman. That truly isn’t the case, is it? We’ve talked about the pros you aspire to play like, can you mention a few you pattern your game after?
Noah: I take in a lot of hockey. That’s pretty much my number one hobby. I just love watching games all the time at any chance I get. If not a game, then I’m usually looking at tape of other players or going over my own tape with my coaches. Two guys I really look up to and enjoy are Duncan Keith and Drew Doughty. The way they compete and skate the puck out of trouble, those are guys I could watch all day. Another guy that I watch plenty of tape on is Ryan Suter. I like to think of myself as a player who can log big minutes, and I want to carry that forward into the NHL. So, I pay attention to Suter and what he does on the ice to allow himself to play so much. Whether it’s getting a whistle, knowing when to burst or conserve energy, little things like that. Defenseman like him can control the pace of the game and I hope to play a similar style someday. I also try to be active all over the ice, so that’s where Keith and Doughty come in. I try to use my skating to the best of my ability.
J: I’m getting a bit ahead of myself here, but when you mentioned the defenseman you did, I couldn’t help but think of Morgan Rielly. I also know that both of you are capable of playing either side. Can you give me your thoughts on both him as a player, and what it would be like to be paired up with Morgan?
N: I follow him whenever I can, but I honestly don’t see a ton of his games. I think we play a lot alike. He plays two ways hard, can skate with the puck, move it up ice and join in. I would absolutely love to play with him. He’s going to be a leader who I could get behind and learn from. The age gap is close enough to where I could look up to Rielly and respect him while we can still be tight off the ice. A different dynamic to a relationship maybe a young player and a veteran leader would have. And I definitely see him as a leader for the Leafs going forward.
J: So let’s stay on the Maple Leafs here for a moment. Whoever Toronto takes at #4 will have a world of attention on them at some point. The pressure in Toronto exists for everyone. What’s your feelings about playing under the microscope and the scrutiny that comes along with it?
N: In all honesty, it’s what I’m used to growing up following Boston sports. Expectations and pressure are always high. That’s what people do around here. Bostonians talk sports 24/7. The fans are hard on guys, but they love and support the teams with everything they have. As far as hockey goes, that’s Toronto. It is truly the “Hub of Hockey.” For me, I welcome that level of interest in the team and would completely embrace it. That’s the environment as a player I want to be in. Personally, I think it would raise my game. What I mean by that is like at the World Juniors or experiences I’ve had along those lines, I feel I’ve been able to play my best. Or maybe it’s just that I’ve felt sharper knowing the situation or focus of the game. Playing in a place like Toronto would suit me just fine, I’m sure. I’d be honoured to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
J: It’s easy to see how much you love hockey from our conversations, and I’m sure that love of the game is part of why you’d be thrilled to come to a hockey city like Toronto. So here you are, rated where you are, and ready for the draft. We’ve talked a bit about how you’ve gotten here. Let’s take some time and talk about the people who have helped you get to this spot. Why don’t we discuss your development leading up to this proud day in less than a month?
N: If we are talking about my development, then there’s some names that come to mind right away. Tim Lovell is a man that has helped me along so much all the way through. When I was 6 or 7, Tim kind of took me under his wing. Put in extra time with me and let me know he felt I had special qualities. Tim has been my skating coach and my skills coach. We are from the same town and he’s been just a real great influence. Shawn McCann was my coach at St. Sebastian and he would encourage me to use my quickness to get up in the play. That’s something that always stuck with me. Neil Shea, who is working for Colorado now as a scout, is somebody who has taught me a great deal to prepare me for what’s ahead. I was just lucky to have good people teaching and guiding me. When I went to Michigan and the USDL, that’s where I really learned the pro type game. They taught me the details like gap control, when to join the rush, and the little things that I’d need to know in order to play at a higher overall level. When I was younger, I always played above my age group with older kids. I just sort of went out there and did my thing, more or less. I just skated everywhere, you know. Kind of free reign and I could do that at the time. But I learned a lot since then on how to play the position and it’s really benefited me as a player, especially moving forward.
J: Playing the position, we’ve talked about it changing. At the outset, I mentioned that ‘stay at home’ isn’t the right description for you, but that wasn’t to suggest you can’t play that style. All the clips I’ve seen show that you play a solid sturdy game when required. But when it boils right down to it, the number one strength of yours is skating, isn’t it?
N: I would probably say so, yeah. I think everything begins with skating for me and it allows me to play the way I want to. With the speed of the game, the defenseman is becoming more of a rover. If you watch the top guys now, they are up the ice and then back in the play all night long. Even coming down the walls to keep plays alive, the defenseman can really help keep possession and momentum in your favour. As far as ‘stay at home,’ I think I can do that as well when needed. One thing that’s been good about the NCAA is playing 25 year old men at times and learning how to battle and win pucks. I don’t shy away from physical play. If I have to get rough, I can. But you have to be smart about it if you want to play all night and not get caught out of position. I try to be strong and always have good angles and body position. You have to take away time and space because players are so skilled. Like Nick Lidstrom used to do. When I watch videos of him, he smothered guys and just took away the plays guys wanted to make without having to impose physically.
J: I know that you were a Lidstrom fan growing up and now his former coach, Mike Babcock, has brought his services to Toronto. Do you have a quick take on his hiring?
N: Babcock is obviously one of the best coaches in the NHL and with him having been with Lidstrom for so long, it would be tremendous to play for him if Toronto were to select me. The organization looks to have a very bright future, even more so now with Babcock coming on board. But going back to the fact that he had my idol in Detroit, it would make it all the more exciting to play under him and let him help shape my game with the Maple Leafs if that transpired.
J: Character and leadership are words you hear every day, but when drafting a young man to an organization with as high a selection as you are projected, they are traits that must be taken seriously. You’ve worn the “C,” and you’ve followed. How has Noah Hanifin learned how to lead?
N: You have people who make an impression on you when you’re younger and when I was 13, I played with Desmond Bergin. He was a few years older than me and was my Captain back then. He’s now with Harvard. Anyways, Dez was just one of those guys who set the example every day. He wasn’t a boisterous guy. He was soft spoken and when he did speak up, everyone listened to whatever he had to say. He gave 110% all the time and it’s very valuable to have someone setting that example. That’s how I try to be. I’m not loud, but I will speak up. When I come to the rink to practice, it’s to get something accomplished. It’s great to have a laugh with the guys and everything, but when it’s time to work, it’s time to work. Everyone is so good and so close competitively that you need any edge you can get. That means through preparation and good habits every day. If you take every opportunity to gain a small edge, and you do that time and time again, then eventually you can add up all those small advantages and you have a considerable gap. I just want to be the guy that shows up every day doing things the right way. Hockey players follow and respect guys like that.
J: You’ve got the Draft Combine coming up, so it’s time to put your training to the test. That has to a different animal, getting ready for something like that. I guess you’ll get to see some of your buddies from the National team play as well?
N: You’re right, it is a different animal. There is a bit of anxiety associated with it. But it’s basically just nervous energy and that’s a good thing. A good feeling, so I’m looking forward to it. It’ll be great to see some of the boys. Eichel, Bracco and those guys, they are fun to be around. It’ll be good to see Zach (Werenski).
J: Werenski is another young defenseman, like yourself, who is expected to go high in this year’s entry draft. You guys really worked well together with Team USA. How would you describe Werenski?
N: Oh, whoever gets Zach is getting a heck of a player. He was just so smart and easy to play with. I think he will go very high in the draft. He’s a solid player that does everything well. I thought we had a lot of chemistry with the US team. He’s an awesome guy too! Like I said, he’s going to be a very good player for whichever team chooses him.
J: You have a decision to make as far as where you’ll play next year. Can I ask if you’ve made that call, or are you going to wait and see?
N: I would say before I commit to or say anything, I want to talk with the team that takes me, obviously. Those are decisions that we’ll make together depending on what they have in mind for my development. I’m going to wait. Hopefully, I’ll end up doing whatever is best for me and the franchise that I’m selected by. I’m just excited about the draft and the process of developing into the best player I can be. No matter the path that gets me there.
J: You mentioned a few big name players in our discussion. There are some lofty comparisons thrown your way as far as current and past stars. Are you okay with the hype?
N: To be perfectly honest, I don’t mind the comparisons at all. It keeps the bar high for me and I want to live up to the expectations of whoever drafts me. Being mentioned in the same breath as these guys only pushes me harder to be the best I can be. It’s all flattering, but I don’t take it lightly. I don’t intend on letting anyone down and I’ll work my hardest to ensure that my draft team feels they made a good decision.
A friend recently asked me, “who I would compare Hanifin to?” I simply could not nail down a particular player that reminds me of Noah. So, I answered him to the best of my ability as I thought about my own experiences.
I grew up in a Maritime community and throughout my 20s, I played hockey in an old barn that was recently torn down called the North Sydney Forum. For many of us, our fondest memories in the Forum’s long history were situated around a game that would be held every year on Boxing Day. Notably, the arena was always closed for the day, so it was almost like a secret society with invitations only going out to a select few. For the most part, it represented the best players in the area, and it was always the fastest and most competitive game of the year. The boys would take the ice for warm up and the two savvy veterans who had been picking the teams for years would take their positions on the side boards, making their selections. You’d have the Senior and Junior scoring champions of years past, the ex-pro home for the holidays, or the big strong forward that nobody could handle. With all these talented guys gathered, year after year when it came down to picking teams, much like drafting, it was the same guy who always went first. Not the goal scorer, not the most gifted player, but the 6’3” defenseman who may not get a hat trick that day, but he was going to do everything else necessary to win that sacred game.
For me, that’s Noah Hanifin. He’s that guy. The one whose presence you feel when you are on the ice. If you’ve ever played hockey at any level, you know exactly what I mean. This is a player that will check off several of the coach’s necessity boxes. Hanifin is going to kill penalties, play your power play, go against top lines and do all the little things that add up to success.
Honestly, it was sort of amusing when I began studying the footage his coaching staff had compiled. I thought why not take a look at him in a rivalry matchup and get a peek at Jack Eichel while I’m at it. So I go to his shifts from a BC vs BU game and make that my first order of business. Early on, during the first period, Boston College is awarded a 5 on 3 and Hanifin unloads a bomb past (Ottawa Senator’s prospect) Matt O’Connor. Just a few shifts later, he joins the rush, gets the puck at center, blows past the D and circles the net. He then finds a trailer and curls the puck to the slot and boom it’s 2-0. Not a bad first impression.
From there, Hanifin continued to impress as I watched hours of footage, taking easy notice of the fact he excels at all aspects of his position. Whether it’s jetting across to his opposite side to help pressure the puck carrier as he attempts to enter the zone, or his ability to step into the neutral zone and break up plays due to his tremendous skating and reach, Hanifin’s game is a skilled and cerebral one. He combines his physical attributes with a high hockey IQ which allows him to control gaps effectively as his instincts kick in to take time and space away from the opposition. When he isn’t doing that, he’s providing puck movement and offense to trigger the attack. That’s the stand out skill for me. He has the skills to not only win his battles, but to know what to do with the puck once he has it on his stick.
During one of our talks, Noah had just finished up a practice session with one of his coaches. As we went over some of the things I noticed from watching his footage, he shared with me the drill they’d been working on that day. They had an arrangement of pylons on the ice and were simulating puck battle situations in the defensive zone. As Hanifin would come out with the puck, his coach would quickly point to a pylon and the rear guard would have to immediately hit the orange target with a pass. Some were of the quick and simple variety, others were the stretch type or to an area of the ice where you’d find a streaking teammate. Other times the coach might yell, “Skate it!!!” That drill falls perfectly in line with what I’ve noticed about Hanifin. Not only is he coming out with the puck most times, he has the hockey sense to make the simple pass, the talent to fire a crisp clean tape-to-tape pass up ice, and the smooth stride to simply bring the puck out of danger and on the attack all on his own.
In the NCAA, he may not be up against the same skill level per say as in the CHL, but what he does see there in comparison is full grown men with some being as old as 25. He faces players who have developed their strength to full maturity and astonishingly, it’s of no real issue. Combine that with the rest of his skill-set and his package is not only rare, but extremely coveted in today’s NHL.
Hanifin is an “Ice General.” This is the type of player that tilts the ice in your favour when he’s out there, and that’s almost half the game. I know many fans here have their heart set on that 1C from Ontario come draft day, and that’s understandable. What I will say to you though is this: If the Maple Leafs do call out Noah Hanifin’s name on June 26th, the only words we should hear from Leafs fans are ”Welcome to Toronto.”