Back when he was coaching a whole bunch of 18-year-old defensemen in junior hockey, Bill Peters would never have entertained the thought of throwing one into the NHL, even the most supremely talented.
The idea was somewhere between inconceivable and incomprehensible. And yet Thursday night, as coach of the Carolina Hurricanes, he’ll have 18-year-old Noah Hanifin in his opening-night lineup against the Nashville Predators.
“I wouldn’t have believed it,” Peters said Wednesday.
But Peters is also the first to acknowledged the game has changed. Thanks to the salary cap, the veteran depth player is rapidly becoming extinct. If you’re not a star or don’t have a specific skill – winning faceoffs or killing penalties – you’ll lose your job to a younger, cheaper player.
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I want this year to be a big learning process for me going forward.
Canes defenseman Noah Hanifin
So instead of a bunch of 30-something forwards who know all the tricks, players like Hanifin are more likely to be battling players of their own generation in the corners and in front of the net. Meanwhile, in open ice, speed and skill have become more important than size or savvy, which plays directly to Hanifin’s strengths.
“Everyone has different experiences playing in this league at a young age,” Hanifin said. “I’m just trying to focus on myself. I want this year to be a big learning process for me going forward.”
There’s no shortage of evidence behind these theories. Aaron Ekblad won the Calder Trophy as an 18-year-old last season for the Florida Panthers. The year before that, Seth Jones stepped right into the Predators’ lineup while Rasmus Ristolainen did the same for the Buffalo Sabres. And over the previous six years, Adam Larsson, Cam Fowler, Victor Hedman, Dmitry Kulikov, Drew Doughty, Zach Bogosian and Luke Schenn all made the full-season jump to the NHL in their draft years as 18- and 19-year-olds.
Including Hanifin, who is expected to play the majority of the season in the NHL, that’s 11 of the 46 defensemen taken with the first 15 picks of the draft since 2008. Sounds reasonable enough, until you consider that in the entire period from 1996 to 2007, only one of the 49 defensemen selected in the top 15 picks of the draft made an immediate, full-season jump to the NHL.
One. Jay Bouwmeester in 2002-03. One.
That includes four defensemen in the once-in-a-lifetime 2003 draft who have gone on to carve out so-so careers for themselves: Ryan Suter, Braydon Coburn, Dion Phaneuf and Brent Seabrook.
“The game has changed,” Peters said. “You’re looking at big guys that are mobile, puck-friendly guys and Hedman and Ekblad and Hanifin, that’s what they do. They move the puck, they skate very well and they fit the modern game. The modern game is all about carrying offense from the back end and getting the puck up as fast as you can.”
Based on his preseason play, Hanifin won’t have any trouble adjusting. He’s still raw, and he’ll make mistakes, but he has the quickness to recover quickly and the hockey sense not to make the same errors twice. He skates with long, liquid strides, and at 6-foot-3, he has the frame and wingspan to hold his own ground.
At 206 pounds, he’s nowhere close to thin, but he has room to add some muscle. That should come with time, just as it did for Eric Staal, who made his NHL debut at 18 and turned 19 during the season, as Hanifin will. So much of the rest of Hanifin’s game is NHL-ready right now.
“I have 100 percent confidence when he’s on the ice,” Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward said.
By all indications, Hanifin is the real deal, which only underlines just how lucky the Hurricanes are he slipped to fifth in the draft.
In any other year, Hanifin might have gone first overall, but not with Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel in the same draft. As for the teams picking fourth and fifth, both wanted forwards, decisions the Arizona Coyotes and Toronto Maple Leafs may come to regret.
Perhaps as soon as Thursday night.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock
Canes vs. Predators
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: Bridgestone Arena, Nashville, Tenn.
TV: Fox Sports Carolinas