Like every other player in the 2015 NHL Draft, Noah Hanifin has spent the season looking up at Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, the pair who’ll be the first two picks in June. Hanifin’s vantage point is unique in this draft pool, though, in that he has seen them from up close—closer than anyone, in fact.
A defenceman with Boston College this past season, Hanifin has been sitting at No. 3 overall on a lot of lists put together by professional prospect watchers, NHL Central Scouting’s among them. And that amounts to form holding: A native of Norwood, Mass., the six-foot-three, 205-lb. Hanifin entered the campaign with expectations usually reserved for players in the running to be first-overall picks.
Hanifin began last season on USA Hockey’s under-17 team in Ann Arbor, Mich., but by mid-winter he had been promoted to the under-18s. As an underager at the worlds for that program last year, he led all U.S. defencemen in scoring and was a key piece in the Americans’ run to gold. That was the rarified air previously breathed by Seth Jones and a few other blueline prodigies. A 1997 birthday, Hanifin could have rejoined the under-18 team in Ann Arbor this season but looked for bigger challenges on other stages. Major junior didn’t figure in his thinking; only the NCAA did, and really only a team close to home.
Once he determined that he wanted to go to Boston College, just 25 minutes from Norwood, Hanifin had to qualify academically—which meant taking on an onerous course load that lasted through the summer. “When I went to Ann Arbor, I was a [high school] junior, so I had to go with an accelerated program,” Hanifin says. “I wound up doing a math course, an English course and another in history last summer. I spent the whole summer either at the arena or hitting the books, and there was a lot of reading.”
Once Hanifin arrived on campus, he made a not-quite-seamless transition. “Moving up to NCAA hockey wasn’t anything like the jump from prep school to Ann Arbor or from the under-17s to the under-18s,” he says. “The game just moved so much faster and everyone was so much bigger. For the first five games, I was trying to figure out the game and [was] disappointed with how I was playing. I wasn’t having the same impact I had in Ann Arbor.”
He cites the 2015 World Junior Championship as a turning point. For Hanifin, it didn’t begin auspiciously: On the first shift of the U.S.’s first game, a miscommunication between Hanifin and goaltender Thatcher Demko, a Boston College teammate, led to a goal for Finland. And the tournament didn’t end well, either: Russia knocked off the U.S. in the quarterfinals. Still, it gave him a chance to get his game together and gain confidence that had been threatened as a young freshman. “It was such a great environment, coming to Montreal and playing in that tournament, playing against Canada in front of a huge crowd in the opening round,” Hanifin says. “The under-20s is just a different type of hockey [than the NCAA]. There are so many skilled players that if you make a mistake, it’s in the back of your net.”
Those skilled players at the world juniors included McDavid and Eichel. Usually, if you ask a kid high up in the draft mix about other players, a prospect turns into a politician and you’ll get the old standby about “focusing on my own game” and “not paying any attention to the bloggers.” Hanifin doesn’t skate around the subject. In fact he has skated around with both of them.
As you’d expect, given their Boston-area origins and parallel courses, Hanifin knows Eichel better than McDavid. “Jack I’ve known about for years,” he says. “I played with him at the under-18s and world juniors and against him this year when we played Boston University—they beat us in the Beanpot, which was pretty hard to take. I loved playing with and against him. He’s just so strong and so smart. He forces you to be a better player.”
Hanifin faced McDavid for a few shifts when Canada beat the U.S. 5–3 in a classic game on New Year’s Eve, but they already knew each other from last summer, when Hanifin came up to Toronto to skate in on-ice workouts put together by former NHLer Dave Gagner (who’s in charge of skills development for Bobby Orr’s agency). “He’s an incredibly skilled player, but he’s really humble and quiet about everything,” Hanifin says. “With all the attention on him, he has managed to stay grounded, which is pretty incredible.”
It’s a given that McDavid and Eichel will be skating in the NHL next season. Hanifin, though, might not be. Eighteen-year-old defencemen jumping straight into NHL lineups rarely work out well, and some of the doormat teams in line to draft Hanifin wouldn’t be able to provide the support he’d need to succeed. Still, he’s unequivocal about his readiness. “I’m sure teams at the combine are going to ask me about it,” he says. “Everything I’ve done in hockey these past few years has been pointing toward playing in the NHL at 18. I don’t think it’s a stretch to think that I can be there next year.”
But Hanifin understands that’s up to whichever team drafts him. “I have to respect that,” he says. “If the team thinks I need another year at Boston College, it’s still a great situation for me. I was disappointed about how our season ended in the playoffs and losing the Beanpot, so there’d be nothing wrong with playing as a sophomore. I know the parts of my game that need work—my one-timer and being more deceptive on the blueline, getting time and space to get my shot through to the net.”
As Hanifin says, where he works on those skills next winter rides on the judgment of the team that drafts him. While he and Brandon Wheat King Ivan Provorov have separated themselves from the rest of this class’s blueliners, they might hear their names called somewhat later than Central Scouting’s rankings and others suggest because of a premium on talent up front. Said one scout who works for a team that early in the season was in the mix to finish with the No. 3 overall pick: “We haven’t made seeing Hanifin a priority like we would, because we’ll be looking at a forward, whether it’s Dylan Strome, Lawson Crouse or Mitch Marner.”
Even if Hanifin were to slide out of the top five because of teams’ itemized shopping lists, he shouldn’t fall much farther than that. And even if he’s back in school and watching Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel from a distance in the fall, it’s a safe bet that he’ll be on the ice skating against them in the NHL a year down the line.