Building off a breakthrough: Noah Hanifin

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Calgary Flames.

If you took merely a cursory glance at Noah Hanifin‘s numbers during his final season with the Carolina Hurricanes, it might not seem like he experienced much of a breakthrough.

His points total only rose by three (29 to 32), and Hanifin’s ice time only spiked by about a minute (17:55 per game in 2016-17 to 18:52 average TOI last season). Once you dig a little deeper, it’s plausible that Hanifin’s really starting to climb the ranks, although he still faces big expectations considering the fact that he was the main takeaway from the polarizing Dougie Hamilton trade and was selected fifth overall in 2015.

[Looking back at Flames’ 2017-18]

For one thing, Hanifin scored more goals last season (10) than he generated in his first two seasons in the NHL (eight overall, four in each campaign). Hanifin’s possession stats also skyrocketed, as he became very much a positive player relative to his Hurricanes teammates after being on the other end in his previous two campaigns.

Take a look at this eye-friendly chart (via CJ Turtoro using  Corey Sznajder’s entry/exit data), and you’ll see that there was a pretty dramatic leap from 2016-17 to 2017-18, aside from a curious drop in defending entries. (Click here for the Hamilton vs. Hanifin comparison by those metrics, which is quite fascinating.)

(The improvement is even more dramatic according to other nice visualizations, such as his year-to-year SKATR score.)

Will the price be right?

The young defenseman also figures to see a breakthrough for his bank account, with the biggest questions revolving around “How much?” and “For how long?”

Matt Cane’s projection is for two years at a $2,336,359 clip per season. That would honestly stand as a pretty great value for what Hanifin is and could be, but will be interesting to see if the Flames and/or the RFA defenseman seek a longer-term decision.

“He’s certainly a priority for us. I’ve been speaking with his representatives regularly. I’d say we’re making progress,” Treliving told Sportsnet 960 on July 25. “We’ll get him signed. The fact he doesn’t have arbitration rights doesn’t make him any less of a priority for us.”

There are a lot of pieces to evaluate in the big trade that sent Hanifin to the Flames. Will Elias Lindholm be worth a touch less than $5M per season, and might he be an upgrade over Micheal Ferland? Will Adam Fox make the Flames regret the trade as much as anyone else?

It’s plausible that Hamilton will be the best player in the trade, yet the bar for success will be lower if Hanifin costs about $3M less per season than Hamilton’s $5.75M.

Room to improve?

Like it or not, people are going to compare Hamilton and Hanifin for years. Even in the very likely event that Hanifin’s contract is cheaper than Hamilton’s, that’s still a lot of pressure to absorb.

Hockey fans – and sports fans – are frequently guilty of dreaming up potential for youngsters, sometimes imagining possible production that was never going to happen. There’s a risk there with Hanifin, no doubt.

Still, it really is possible that Hanifin hasn’t hit his ceiling yet. He’s just 21, and he hasn’t really received bountiful ice time to truly stretch his legs. The Flames need all the help they can get on defense beyond Mark Giordano, so Hanifin should get a legitimate chance to prove that he’s as good or better than Hamilton.

It should be entertaining to see what the speedy American defenseman can pull off next season and beyond.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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