Noah Hanifin has been among the top five players in almost everyone's draft rankings for the entire season, and he finished the year strongly enough to end up third on Bob McKenzie's final ranking. But he's a defenseman, and that always makes me nervous when we're talking about a top five pick. Yes, Hanifin has all of the tools necessary to succeed in the NHL (size, skating, passing, positioning), and yes he's likely to have, at minimum, a solid NHL career, but is he going to be among the NHL's elite? At third overall, he'll need to be in order to cover the bet, and separating the good from the elite has been notoriously difficult to do at this position.
Let's take a look at Hanifin's comparables for help. Hanifin, like Jack Eichel, played in the NCAA. That means there are going to be fewer players to draw from to find comparables, so I've used a similar translation process here as I did with Eichel. In the chart below, I've listed every defenseman who was either drafted out of the NCAA or played in the NCAA in his Draft +1 season so long as he was selected between 1st and 8th overall from 1981 to 2014. Even though teams play many out-of-Conference games, I've also adjusted each player's offense according to the Conference scoring rate, normalizing it to a league that generates 6.0 goals per game. Here are the results:
The closest comparables statistically are Erik Johnson and Jason Herter (both players are within 10% of Hanifin's adjusted total). A career like Herter's (one career NHL game) would be disastrous. A career like Johnson's? At third overall, I've got to think that would still qualify as disappointing. That the only elite player on the list is Ryan Suter should give us pause. The fact that the NCAA hasn't produced a mountain of elite NHL players was a bit of an issue with Eichel, but at least there the player had put some distance between himself and the rest of the pack. Here, at least offensively, that just isn't the case.
Even if we go searching for elite players who were drafted later (or not at all), we see that they were either offensively superior to Hanifin in their first NCAA seasons (Chris Chelios and Brian Leetch), or players who were well behind him but developed late (Duncan Keith, Dan Boyle). The thing that might have been Hanifin's saving grace is his age. After all, most of the players listed above were significantly older than Hanifin in their rookie seasons. That brings us to Zach Werenski. Werenski is six months younger than Hanifin and is having a better offensive season with the University of Michigan this year (his adjusted point per game rate is 0.70).
I'm not saying that Hanifin isn't going to be a good player in the NHL. Heck, he might even be great. I am saying that there's a lot of uncertainty here, that there's a reasonable chance Hanifin isn't the best defenseman in the draft, and that, based on past performance, I don't have a lot of faith in the scouting community's ability to look at a player's tools and correctly translate what they're seeing into an accurate enough projection to identify elite defensemen. I'll certainly have Hanifin in my top ten, but if you forced me to pick a defenseman third overall, I'd go with Ivan Provorov instead.
Next up this afternoon: Dylan Strome