Hanifin shows glimpse of elite potential

Noah Hanifin. (Tom Sorensen)

BUFFALO — Give points for truth-telling to Noah Hanifin. A defenceman projected to be top-five pick in the 2015 draft, Hanifin cut through the crap and called the USA Hockey prospects game at the HBSC exactly what it was.

“Pond hockey,” he said.

Even measured against the low, low standard of games in this vein, you really couldn’t take away too much. Do you really want to form lasting opinion based on a game featuring a grab bag of off-form players who practised once together so early in the season that the leaves are still green? Yeah, a bunch of guys had skated together with the USNTDP last year, knew each other from stops along the way, Ivan Hlinka, whatever. It’s still more of a skate rather than a game, a complete no-hitter with everyone worried about even having a bruise when the real stuff starts.

So let’s start with the mutual assumption that the shape of the draft wasn’t determined and was never going to be determined by last night’s game.

What do you take away from it?

I’ll start with the kid who called the game what it was after the fact, Hanifin, who’ll be the youngest player ever to skate for Boston College this season if you put faith in the press releases out there — I have to believe that in the Golden Eagles long history there must have been some Doogie Howser-ish academic prodigy who skated with the team but no matter. A lot of people have Hanifin slotted at No. 3 in the draft and put him behind only Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel in some part because of his position. I think there’s a drop after these two. A significant one. I also think there’s something of a drop after McDavid.

The game last night wasn’t kind to Hanifin, though I wouldn’t put his critique of the game down to that. His team was the one in white and they lost. Lot of spotty play but the white team’s was spottier. A couple of guys floating weightlessly in the neutral zone managed to get behind Hanifin for clean breakaways but it’s not like he’s going to see goal-sucking like that when the real stuff starts and ice time for opponents’ forwards rides on looking after their defensive responsibility. You wouldn’t take points away from Hanifin for that sort of oversight in this event — you might even have come away impressed with how he closed in on the shooters in two or three strides. In regards to skating ability, Hanifin’s acceleration will place him in the top five percent of NHL defencemen once he gets rid of his new-car smell.

Another instance comes to mind and it captured Hanifin’s game last night if not his game overall. In the spirit of pond hockey, Hanifin ignored the score or, probably, wasn’t even aware of it. His white team was down just a goal midway through the third period. In the spirit of pond hockey, Hanifin really wasn’t paying attention overly to the guys on the other side of the ice, those being the blue team’s first line centred by Eichel. A couple of times on the shift the puck came back to Hanifin on the left point, not clean passes but sort of 50-50 pucks — in most instances with real stakes on the table, a blue-liner would not try anything fancy. Hanifin did — he can do fancy. A couple of dekes were like Patrick Kane. He could run a shell game with the blade. He has a smart stick. His stick will graduate ahead of his class. All that stuff. Yeah, it was fun and, of course, stuff that he will never try at the Beanpot or at the world juniors or any place but an NHL all-star game. It did evince a high level of puck skill, a comfort in rubber handling, that you would look for in a first power play point man, which he’ll be at the next level. You’ve seen it with Ryan Ellis — Hanifin’s a vastly superior skater and bigger. You’ve seen it in Ryan Murphy — Hanifin’s bigger and couldn’t struggle the way Murphy does with contact in a men’s league. Hanifin can find time and space at the blueline and bamboozle forwards trying to close on him. So, yeah, there’s a good shot that Hanifin will go No. 3, 4 or 5.

Hanifin was playing fast and loose later in the shift and it bit him in the ass. Again, the pond-hockey advisory applies. Hanifin was cute in his own zone a lot of the time and it impressed or at least entertained. When he got overly cute when the puck came into his corner along the wall, he coughed up the puck to Jordan Greenway, a six-foot-five 222-pound left winger who’ll be at the USNTDP and impressed through the night. Greenway shovelled the puck to Eichel who was easy to find, skating through the slot unchecked and seemingly unwatched by Hanifin’s teammates. Eichel caressed the puck into the net — 4-2 and cue the exit music.

Again, it’s pond hockey in September. You don’t hand out demerit points based on anything here. There was a lot to like in Hanifin’s game and the games of a lot of others here, Greenway’s no less and Eichel as expected.

Et cetera: It might be September but Ed Olczyk was in draft-week form with this assessment of Eichel. “I haven’t seen a player at that level with a reach and a stick like that since Mario [Lemieux],” the coach of the eponymous white team said. “When he skates up into the play and into the zone, with one hand on his stick, spreading his arms, showing that arm length with the stick flailing, it’s like a 747 going up ice, and I’m not kidding. Mario is as great as there’s ever been, and I was lucky to play with him, against him and, well, I tried to coach him, and Jack’s reach, to me, was what I took out of his play. It was incredible.”

Yeah, incredible is a good word for comparing a kid to No. 66 based on a pond hockey game, his three points and plus-four notwithstanding.

Two players I liked were Alex Baer, a centre from St Louis who plays for the Vancouver Giants, and Colin White, another Bostonian centre who’ll skate at the USNTDP this winter. Baer scored a nice goal for the blue team on a deflection from a shot on the point. He’s listed at five-foot-10 but I’ll want to see Central Scouting’s tape measure on that one. White looks like a pretty heady guy who doesn’t do any one thing spectacularly but everything well, your classic second-line projection. File for future reference.