Chills. That’s how Noah Hanifin describes his first NHL game. It’s one of the first words that comes out of the 18-year-old’s mouth when he talks about what it was like the first time he stepped on NHL ice.
With the hype surrounding Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, it’s easy to forget Hanifin was once in the conversation to be 2015’s top draft pick. Come draft day, though, he was selected fifth-overall by the Carolina Hurricanes. Then he did what few defensemen his age ever do: he cracked an NHL roster while still in his teens. Hanifin admits he’s still learning the ropes, though, and he even isn’t afraid to say that the adjustment period took a while.
“I would say probably 25 games or so I started to feel a lot more confident out there,” Hanifin said. “It took a while, though. I’m still trying to get better and get even more confident. I’m not where I want to be yet. It’s my first year, and I’m 18. It’s more of a learning experience. I still have a long ways to go.”
It’s a learning process for Hanifin, as it is for many rookies, but unlike those other rookies he hasn’t had the benefit of seasoning in the AHL to learn the ways of the pro game. Only three seasons ago, Hanifin was playing high school hockey for St. Sebastian’s (Mass.).
Now, after one year at Boston College, he’s lining up across from the likes of Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and John Tavares. “When I was in college or previous, it was pretty easy for me to use my skating ability to play defense and get the puck and rush up the ice,” he said. “Now you actually have to use your body, use your strength to push guys off the puck.”
Hanifin said being able to watch and skate with teammate Justin Faulk has helped him improve, and Hanifin is trying to incorporate parts of Faulk’s game into his own. One thing he’s learned is to be more patient with the puck and play with poise. But adjusting to the NHL also includes learning the ins and outs away from the rink. Nathan Gerbe, who Hanifin lives with, has helped Hanifin most in that regard.
“In the NHL, everything’s so fast, so demanding and you need to do everything the right way or you’re going to be held accountable for it,” Hanifin said. “That’s the biggest thing. Your job is always on the line in the NHL. You have to show up every day and work hard.”