Every team wants a first line forward. Every team yearns for a first line centre.
In Toronto, this is exponentially greater after the franchise has spent the better part of half a decade struggling, season after season, with Tyler Bozak as it’s top pivot.
But there’s something to say about looking around the league and admiring the recent dominance of young, capable defensemen.
In the last four NHL drafts, there have been defensemen taken inside the top 10 who are equally as integral to the makeup of their franchises as an Alex Galchenyuk or Alexsander Barkov.
Think Seth Jones. Think Dougie Hamilton. Think Rasmus Ristolainen. Think Jacob Trouba. Think Hampus Lindholm. Think Aaron Ekblad.
Think Morgan Rielly.
When the Leafs selected Rielly fifth overall, many cried for Filip Forsberg or Mikhail Grigorenko, and while Forsberg is coming off a strong season, there’s little to complain about moving forward with Rielly handling the puck from the point.
This year, with Mitch Marner and Dylan Strome potentially available with the fourth overall pick, there’s a “get one of them or bust” mentality for the centre-starved franchise (ignoring that William Nylander has thrived playing centre in one of the best professional hockey leagues in the world, and that Mitch Marner spent the majority of this season on the wing).
And while the two of them are phenomenal pieces, if the Leafs, or any other team walks away with Hanifin post-Eichel in this year’s draft, they’re drafting a potential first pairing defensemen who is near-NHL-ready, if not NHL-ready.
There is never a single need for a franchise, which is precisely why drafting for need is short-sighted. For a team like the Leafs, this couldn’t hold truer as they enter a full-fledged rebuild.
On the Leafs’ back-end (from this year’s NHL roster), it looks as though only Jake Gardiner and Rielly will be around longterm, if Jake Gardiner is even in Shanahan’s vision. <!– TIPS: 1. Replace with your facebook page embed, otherwise it will use the default SB Nation FB page. 2. IMPORTANT: Be sure to remove the inline ‘width’ and ‘height’ attributes from embed code. 3. IMPORTANT: In the event that you use your own code, be sure to make sure the border_color portion of the looks exactly like this: border_color=%23ffffff& 4. This is a floated snippet, so be sure to place before the paragraph you’d like it to float alongside. –>
If Gardiner is moved, solidifying LD1 and LD2 with Rielly and Hanifin (in whichever order they earn), is an enticing option. If he isn’t moved, having three left-handed shots who can skate and attack, with one on the ice at all-times, gives any club a dynamic back-end.
What the NHL team that drafts Noah Hanifin is getting, is a potentially elite NHL defensemen, who does it all, and with incredible pace.
And after years of being in the spotlight, scouts and pundits are still struggling to find flaws in his game. What he lacks, is a heavy point shot, which two of his counterparts, Zach Werenski and Ivan Provorov, both possess.
But there are flaws in each prospect’s game, particularly when they’ve been watched closely since they were 14, as Hanifin has. Connor McDavid’s shot is his biggest weakness too. Dylan Strome is an average skater. Mitch Marner will likely be one of the lightest top-five picks selected in the modern NHL.
What makes them special, is that none of these fallbacks inhibit them, and their other traits shine through.
This season, playing college hockey with players, two, three, four years older, Hanifin finished five points shy of Boston College’s leading scorer, Alex Tuch (MIN).
His 23 points in 37 games were just two less than the team’s leading scorer from the back end, Mike Matheson (who also played one more game), a former first round pick of the Florida Panthers who is three years older than Hanifin.
He has captained U.S. national teams at various levels internationally. He was the youngest ever Boston College Eagle, and arguably the team’s best player.
And while he dictates the play offensively, it’s his defensive tools that make him so mature for his age. He’s not overly physical, despite his size, but he doesn’t need to be because he thinks the game extremely well and his positioning is outstanding, two of the biggest areas most young defenders normally don’t have full control of.
Through the neutral zone, he moves effortlessly with the puck and closes gaps extremely quickly without it.
He anticipates the game remarkably well to boot. And for what he lacks as a shooting threat, he makes up for by moving laterally along the blueline or carrying the puck deep into the offensive zone to get his shots on target, or use his unmatched passing ability in the 2015 draft class.
If he can work on adding an elusive, heavy release, it will be a welcome tool. If not, he’s not going to be inhibited as an offensive threat because of it.
If your team walks away from the floor with Noah Hanifin in a draft deep enough to get him at fourth or fifth overall, you should be laughing.
Laughing while watching this:
If you want more on Noah Hanifin, subscribe to McKeen’s Hockey for hundreds of pages worth of analysis and scouting reports in the two annual yearbooks (and access to other online tools and content). I will be profiling dozens of drafted and draft-eligible prospects for the yearbooks.