Following up to an excellent piece written by TSN’s Travis Yost last spring comparing Florida’s Aaron Ekblad to the top 18 year old defensemen of the past decade, Carolina’s Noah Hanifin now joins this conversation. Hanifin, this summer’s fifth overall draft pick, is on pace to be just the ninth defensemen since 2007 to complete a full season in the NHL at just 18 years old joining an elite group that includes Drew Doughty, Victor Hedman, and Seth Jones. Let’s see how Hanifin stacks up against their 18 year old rookie seasons.
Production and ice time are one of the easiest ways to measure success from a raw statistical standpoint which is how Yost first compares Ekblad to the elite group. Using this measure, Hanifin fits right in. Ekblad tops the list in both even strength points and ice time for an 18 year old with Hedman following him. Hanifin is projected to finish third on this list (extrapolating his production of 4 EV Points and 15.04 EV TOI/gm through 24 of his team’s 27 games so far) which is very impressive.
Next, Yost compared Ekblad’s impact to the group on a team level using relative possession/goal statistics. This better shows how the team performs when a player is on the ice compared to playing without him. Let’s recreate Yost’s graph and add Hanifin to the mix. I’ve added one additional measure, relative high danger scoring chance percentage, to the graph.
A majority of the defensemen have struggled in most, if not all these categories. This means that their team has been better without them on the ice. It isn’t easy to come into the league as an 18 year old defenseman and have a positive impact to the team. Factoring in the minutes and roles they played, most of the 18 year old defensemen were a liability to their team every single night. Hanifin is one of only two defensemen to have positive relative numbers in all four categories, the other being Ekblad.
Hanifan has had a positive impact on Carolina’s blue line so far this season but the team has struggled overall. Carolina currently sits 26th in the league in points and just two points in front of last place Calgary. Like many of these top defensemen who were drafted early in the first round to rebuilding teams, it will be several years for Hanifan’s Hurricanes to make the playoffs. Until then, expect Carolina to build around him while he matures and develops into a legitimate top defenseman.
Even though Hanifan is having a successful season, don’t expect him to follow in Ekblad’s footsteps of winning the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie. His impact hasn’t been as strong as Ekblad’s was last season, whose relative possession and goal statistics were much higher, and Hanifin isn’t projected to score as many points or play as many minutes as Ekblad did. In addition, many rookie forwards are scoring at a high rate this season. Max Domi leads all Calder Trophy eligible players (Chicago’s Artemi Panarin leads all rookies with 27 points but played the past two seasons in the KHL, making him ineligible to win the Calder Trophy) with 23 points, followed by Detroit’s Dylan Larkin with 21 points. Expect Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel to join this conversation as the season goes on.
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