There’s no question that the Canucks need help on the blueline.
Management, media and fans alike are well aware of the cesspool that’s become the team’s defence group over the past few seasons. Unfortunately, reinforcements are few and far between when peeking at the team’s prospect pool — one that appears concerningly thin after Olli Juolevi.
Most expect that the Canucks are leaning towards selecting a defenceman with their seventh overall pick in June, but that alone won’t be enough to shore up the backend moving forward.
Another avenue the team could explore is the trade market, with Sportsnet writer Elliotte Friedman’s report of Vancouver as a stealth destination for Noah Hanifin perking the ears of many fans. The ambiguity behind Friedman’s story brings into question the feasibility of a potential Hanifin acquisition for the Canucks. Why are the Hurricanes shopping Hanifin? What kind of return might they be looking for, and more importantly, do the Canucks possess those assets?
A deeper look into the matter can help us fill in some of those blanks to establish whether there’s a potential trade to be made.
What Does Carolina Have In Hanifin?
There’s a lot to unpack on the topic of a potential Hanifin trade, but the forefront of the discussion has to be led by an evaluation of the value he presents.
Hanifin was the first defenceman taken at the 2015 NHL Draft, selected fifth overall ahead of top-pairing fixtures Zach Werenski and Ivan Provorov. Hanifin may not be at the same level as those names above, but he’s a good defenceman in his own right.
Offensively, Hanifin continued his linear progression, setting a career-high in points for a third consecutive season. The bulk of his production was at even-strength, where he was able to finish among the top 25 NHL defencemen with 23 five-on-five points.
Peel back the layers of Hanifin’s production, and it becomes abundantly clear that he did most of his damage on transition plays. Not only did he finish among elite company when looking at controlled zone exits, but he was a top-five NHL defender at leading controlled offensive zone entries.
At the same time though, Hanifin’s impressive microdata indicates that there likely isn’t much room for offensive growth.
Hanifin has already actualized his potential as a premier breakout player — delivering excellent results at both rushing the puck up the ice and finding his teammates on the fly for effective outlet passes in the neutral zone. For him to take the next step as an offensive defenceman, he’ll need to improve significantly on the three primary points he produced in nearly 150 power-play minutes.
It’s fair to wonder how much he can really improve in that regard though. Hanifin doesn’t possess a great point shot, nor does he have the same vision as the best power-play quarterbacks in the league. Furthermore, his mobility, solid first pass, and ability to jump up in the rush as the late trailer are all largely mitigated on the man advantage, where the majority of offence is created from stagnant formations.
Shift the focus to Hanifin’s overall underlying profile, and the results certainly support his gaudy even-strength production.
Hanifin’s year over year progression stands out and for good reason. Anyone following the Hurricanes over the past three seasons would know that he underwhelmed in his first two years in the NHL, though it appears he finally broke out this season.
It’s not all good news though — buried behind Hanifin’s impressive statistical profile are extremely favourable deployment factors. The context section at the bottom of the graph tells us that he played sheltered bottom pairing minutes while receiving extremely favourable zone starts.
With the help of Bill Comeau’s SKATR tool, I was able to find defencemen league-wide with similar statistical and contextual profiles as Hanifin.
Most of this cohort consists of young offensive defencemen that have yet to establish themselves as responsible players away from the puck. They’re oozing with offensive potential, but lack the requisite defensive acumen to play in a traditional top-four role.
I was curious to see if there were any defencemen in similar scenarios last year that made the transition to tougher minutes this season and my searches yielded two matches — Brady Skjei and Nate Schmidt.
Skjei took on a larger role for the Rangers this year after an impressive rookie season and the departure of Ryan McDonagh, while Schmidt moved to Vegas’ top pairing following the expansion draft. The contrasting results for each player highlights that acclimating to big minutes isn’t as easy as one might think.
Despite a highly touted two-way game, Skjei struggled on both ends of the ice in a larger role.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, you have Nate Schmidt, who coped well when considering the shutdown role he played this season.
In Hanifin’s case, his defensive play will need to improve for him to succeed in a more significant role. He was less than half a goal above replacement level when looking at five-on-five defensive GAR.
As we all know stats don’t tell the full story, so I turned to The Athletic’s Corey Sznajder for his take on Noah Hanifin’s defensive play.
[Hanifin’s] play in his own zone is where I’ve been concerned the most. He had quite a few misreads there that led to goals and gets lost in coverage quite a bit. Also needs to get better at winning puck battles along the boards since that was a problem last year too. He was decent at reading plays off the rush, it’s just the play [in his own zone] that’s been the problem. Peters was reluctant to use him above the third pair becuase of that.
It’s kind of hard to know whether or not it’s the system being too confusing or if he just has a problem in knowing where to be, but there were a lot of breakdowns when he was on the ice.
There’s certainly room for improvement given Hanifin’s age (21) and solid frame (6-foot-3, 205 pounds), but the extent of his possible defensive progression is anybody’s guess. Ultimately, it will be the strides that he makes in fixing his own zone play that dictate whether he peaks as a first or second pairing defenceman. At this point, I’m far more comfortable projecting Hanifin as a future number three or four defenceman than I am labelling him as a top-2 option.
Why Does Carolina Want To Move Hanifin and What Return Are They Looking For?
With a new owner and GM in the fold, the Hurricanes have publically expressed their desire to make moves to shake up the roster. Do not mistake this for a fire sale though — Carolina isn’t going to flip their trade chips for anything less than full market value.
As it pertains to Hanifin, Carolina’s willingness to move the All-Star defencemen is less about wanting him gone, than it is about trying to deal from a position of strength. The Hurricanes already have budding stars on the blueline in Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce in addition to Justin Faulk ahead of Hanifin on the depth chart.
The natural inclination for a lottery team might be to acquire picks and prospects, but the Hurricanes appear more interested in win-now pieces after missing out on the playoffs for a ninth consecutive season. One would think that they would then be interested in a swap akin to the Ryan Johansen for Seth Jones trade.
Unfortunately, the Canucks don’t have the expendable pieces to make a deal of that ilk possible. What they do have is the seventh overall pick — a piece that Friedman speculated to be part of a possible Hanifin trade.
More Friedman on #Canucks going after Hanifin : "Look, I know this is going to go bananas. I’m just going to say this is my guess. My guess is it involves the seventh overall pick, but I don’t know that for sure.” #Canucks
— Rick Dhaliwal (@DhaliwalSports) May 30, 2018
Would a one for one swap for the seventh pick make sense for the Canucks? It depends on who’s available. If either one of Quinn Hughes or Oliver Wahlstrom is on the board at seven, I lean towards no. Hughes and Wahlstrom are riskier bets than Hanifin, but in my estimation, they provide greater chances of becoming top-line players.
Having said that, it’s improbable that either one is still available after the first six picks, in which case it’d make sense to pull the trigger on a one-for-one trade. The second tier of defencemen including Evan Bouchard, Noah Dobson, and Adam Boqvist all have question marks that could hold them back from developing into bonafide top-pairing blueliners. Hanifin has similar upside relative to these prospects but presents far less risk considering how far he is in his developmental cycle.
The problem is that the seventh pick alone is unlikely to coax the Hurricanes into parting ways with Hanifin. In fact, Vancouver would probably have to overpay with additional roster pieces given Carolina’s win-now mindset.
Noah Hanifin is exactly the type of defenceman the Canucks should be targetting — he’s a sublime puck-moving defenceman that can provide even-strength offence in spades from the backend. Unfortunately, Carolina’s desire to compete complicates negotiations; with an ask that likely exceeds the seventh overall pick.
The inclusion of the first rounder is a tough pill in itself to swallow, let alone the possibility of having to sweeten the pot with additional assets. The Canucks do have the pieces to swing a deal should they have a particular affinity for Hanifin, though it’s unlikely that the ends would justify the means.