In September, Noah Hanifin will try the hardest thing he’s done as a hockey player. The Norwood native will report to Traverse City, Mich., to play in the Red Wings’ annual eight-team rookie tournament. The 18-year-old will then graduate to Carolina’s main camp.
The two components will help determine whether Hanifin will make his NHL debut on Oct. 8. Most 18-year-olds are still asking their mothers to wash their dirty socks, not battling men with mortgages.
“If he’s ready to play, he’ll be in our lineup come October,” said Hurricanes general manager Ron Francis. “If he needs more time, we’ll do what we have to do to help in that regard, as well. We want what’s right for Noah.”
Hanifin, who left three years at Boston College on the table by turning pro, will have to fight for his first NHL paycheck. He’ll be competing for ice time against older teammates such as Ron Hainsey. In 2002, when Hainsey made his NHL debut, Hanifin was five years old.
But if anything ensures Raleigh as Hanifin’s landing spot instead of Charlotte, the Hurricanes’ AHL affiliate, it is the way he moves.
“His skating ability is above par in the NHL as it is,” said Stride Envy Skating owner Adam Nicholas, who is coaching Hanifin this summer. “He’s not going in there saying, ‘I’ve got to work on my skating.’ His skating is there to play at that level now. That’s how great a skater he is.”
Like everything in the NHL, a defenseman’s role is changing. Teams once liked big, nasty brutes who occupied space, chopped at opponents, and chipped pucks out of the defensive zone.
Demand for such defensemen is declining. The modern NHL is all about speed. Teams seek explosive transition from defense to offense. It’s not good enough for defensemen to fire pucks out of their zone. They have to move the puck crisply, gap up, and make sure it doesn’t reenter dangerous areas moments later.
For that to happen, defensemen require speed, quickness, brains, strength, and aggression. Those qualities define Hanifin’s game. When Hanifin makes a mistake, he corrects it so quickly that any opportunity an attacker might have had goes away before it mushrooms into trouble.
“That’s what makes him such an intriguing player, his recovery,” said Nicholas, who is also UMass-Lowell’s skating coach. “He’s able to recover on any mistake he might make.”
Nicholas praised the training Hanifin has received, whether on the ice from Jerry York at BC or in the weight room from Foxborough-based trainer Brian McDonough, owner of Edge Performance Systems. Hanifin’s foundation will give him the toolbox to compete against NHLers. Part of Nicholas’s job this summer is to expand Hanifin’s skill set by amplifying his strongest asset.
Young defensemen, Nicholas explained, are taught to protect the middle of the defensive zone. This is true of NHL veterans, as well. The emphasis is on locking down the front of the net, where most goals are scored. NHL goalies are expected to stop pucks launched from outside the dots.
But smart, mobile defensemen can negate scoring chances before they develop and go on the attack by extending their perimeter. In their sessions, Nicholas is drilling Hanifin on defending closer to the walls and keeping tighter gaps. To do so, Nicholas is reminding Hanifin not to cross his feet.
For a forward, the crossover is essential for accelerating and changing speeds. Conversely, a defenseman who crosses his feet invites trouble. NHL players will blow past tangled-up defensemen by charging in the other direction.
The trick for defensemen is to work the edges, keep the hips and shoulders square, and stay balanced. By reducing crossovers, Hanifin isn’t caught leaning one way or the other. This puts him in better position to reduce an attacker’s suite of moves.
“We’re putting him in situations to react,” Nicholas said. “As long as he’s in position, he’s able to strip pucks and take pucks away. Then immediately, this puts him back into his comfort zone of the puck on his stick and going north. As much as everybody talks about pushing the pace, the pace is getting pushed back at you. You’ve got to stop the other team’s pace, push your own pace, and always be on the north side of the puck.”
Hanifin’s game flourishes once he gains possession. During his viewings of Hanifin at BC and during the World Junior Championship, Francis noted Hanifin’s composure with the puck. In 37 games, the BC freshman scored five goals and 18 assists. The Hurricanes believe Hanifin will become the left-shot complement to 23-year-old Justin Faulk, their excellent right-side No. 1 defenseman.
In some ways, this year won’t be different for Hanifin. As a 16-year-old, Hanifin left St. Sebastian’s to play for the National Team Development Program’s Under-17 team. Last season, when he should have played for the U-18s, Hanifin accelerated to enter BC a year early.
Hanifin’s skating helped him make the two previous jumps. On July 11, the Hurricanes signed Hanifin because they believe the third is coming.
Team was wise to lock up Holtby
On July 23, Braden Holtby was somewhere far less comfortable than the Washington crease. Holtby was in Toronto attending his arbitration case. During the hearing, the Capitals argued that their goalie was worth $2.9 million less per year than the $8 million he was seeking, according to the Washington Post.
That Holtby’s case even progressed to arbitration was unusual. The last hearing involving a goalie was in 2010 involving Antti Niemi.
Things didn’t work out well for Niemi. He scored a one-year, $2.75 million arbitration award. The Blackhawks said no thanks, making Niemi an unrestricted free agent. Niemi then signed a one-year, $2 million deal with San Jose.
Holtby’s case concluded with a better outcome. On July 24, a day before the scheduled ruling, Holtby and Washington agreed to a five-year, $30.5 million contract. The 25-year-old Holtby will carry the seventh-highest average annual value among goalies after Henrik Lundqvist, Sergei Bobrovsky, Tuukka Rask, Pekka Rinne, Carey Price, and Cam Ward.
Arbitration, like it did with P.K. Subban and the Canadiens, served as the final component in determining Holtby’s value.
“I think the arbitration process kind of forced both parties to look at how they were viewing the valuation part differently,” Washington GM Brian MacLellan said during a conference call. “It became a little easier to negotiate the final number after that process.”
It’s hard for player and organization to settle on an extension when a goalie is involved. In arbitration, the number is based on comparables. Because of the nature of the position (60 goalies in the league compared with 360 forwards), there are fewer contracts to use as benchmarks. There are even fewer when it comes to high-performing goalies such as Holtby.
Price is the NHL’s puck-stopping standard. The Montreal ace made that clear by leaving the MGM Grand Hotel in June with enough hardware (Vezina, Hart, Ted Lindsay, and Jennings Trophies) to set off every metal detector at Las Vegas’s McCarran International Airport.
Holtby belongs in the next tier, which includes the other goalies in his pay range except Ward, who is the exception. Other peers are former teammate Semyon Varlamov, Cory Schneider, and Corey Crawford.
But Holtby could become as good or better than Price, which is why the Capitals were smart to lock up their No. 1 for $6.1 million annually. After five seasons, Holtby is 101-51-18 with a 2.44 goals-against average and .921 save percentage. In 34 career playoff appearances, Holtby is 16-18 with a 1.92 GAA and .936 save percentage.
Like Holtby, Price scored his megabucks extension after his fifth NHL season. At the time, Price was 124-104-35 with a 2.56 GAA and .922 save percentage. In the playoffs, Price was 8-15 with a 2.84 GAA and .936 save percentage.
“[Holtby is] just touching the surface of what he can become,” MacLellan said. “He’s a 25-year-old goalie just starting to get to his level. I don’t know what the ceiling is on him. I know he has the right attitude and work ethic. We think we have a chance to win a championship with him.”
Goaltender is a volatile position. Last year, following up his Vezina-winning season, Rask was 34-21-13 with a 2.30 GAA and .922 save percentage — still very good, but not airtight. Ward, a former Conn Smythe Trophy winner, has been more of a cap anchor than life preserver. Devan Dubnyk signed a six-year, $26 million extension with Minnesota in June. The Wild are Dubnyk’s fifth organization (following Edmonton, Arizona, Montreal, and Nashville) in less than two seasons.
For Washington, a 178-game regular-season sample, plus 34 in the playoffs, was enough to commit big dough to Holtby. Chances are good that the Capitals’ investment will pay off.
Rivalry will suffer without Lucic
On Wednesday at Gillette Stadium, Patriots owner Robert Kraft recalled a 1980 road trip he and son Jonathan took to the Montreal Forum for Bruins-Canadiens. Naturally, the game involved a dustup between Stan Jonathan and Chris Nilan, which Kraft remembered with a smile.
Commissioner Gary Bettman noted the Winter Classic would be the league-leading 910th meeting, including the regular season and playoffs, between the franchises.
The chatter revolved around the rivalry, which is as flammable as any in sports: Red Sox vs. Yankees, US Olympic Committee vs. Mayor Marty Walsh, Tom Brady vs. Samsung.
In reality, the rivalry will never be the same.
On Jan. 1, Milan Lucic will be in Los Angeles, a continent away from Foxborough. For eight seasons, Lucic was a hose of 93 octane aimed at the Bruins-Canadiens bonfire.
Consider the episodes involving No. 17: regular beatdowns of Mike Komisarek, saying no to Georges Laraque’s request to fight, clubbing Maxim Lapierre in the head with his stick in the playoffs, spearing Alexei Emelin, making an obscene gesture to Bell Centre fans, and threatening Dale Weise in the handshake line.
That’s not all. The Bruins are coming off their offseason teardown. Dougie Hamilton is gone. David Krejci could be playing with two new wingmen. It’s hard to project how Tuukka Rask will perform behind defensemen who will be more active.
For the Canadiens, Max Pacioretty, Montreal’s No. 1 left wing, will miss training camp because of a knee injury. Alexander Semin, a low-risk gamble (one year, $1.1 million), was bought out after scoring six goals in 57 games for Carolina last season. Montreal scored 2.61 goals per game last season, No. 20 in the league, just two slots ahead of the Bruins (2.55).
Since 2007-08, each team has missed the postseason only once (Boston in 2014-15, Montreal in 2011-12). The playoffs are not a guarantee for either club. Columbus will improve. Florida’s young players (Aleksander Barkov, Brandon Pirri, Aaron Ekblad) will make the Panthers a tough out. If everything goes right, Jack Eichel and the Sabres could push for the playoffs.
In that sense, the Winter Classic may not just be a spectacle. It will represent two important points.
Firing was owner-approved
Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs confirmed on Wednesday that team CEO Charlie Jacobs and president Cam Neely made the call on firing GM Peter Chiarelli. Once Charlie Jacobs and Neely decided Chiarelli was out, the owner gave his blessing to the transaction. Had the decision been up to Jeremy Jacobs, it’s possible Chiarelli would still be in Boston instead of Edmonton. “They wanted a change,” Jeremy Jacobs said. “They felt we needed a change. They thought it was the right move for this franchise. I think Peter is a great human being and a great hockey mind. I think he’s going to prosper out West. He’s got a great young team there. We’re not in the same position. It’s a cap environment we find ourselves in here. You’ve got to look to the future.”
Rhode Island connections
Proof that hockey is a small world: Rhode Island, the smallest state in the country, was central to the hiring of two former German coaches. Geoff Ward, head coach of Adler Mannheim in 2014-15, will be an assistant for Warwick native John Hynes in New Jersey. Ward, formerly Claude Julien’s assistant in Boston, led Mannheim to the Deutsche Eishockey Liga title last season. Jay Leach, Ward’s assistant in Germany, will be Mike Sullivan’s right-hand man for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Pittsburgh’s top farm club. Leach played at Providence College for four years. Sullivan coached the Providence Bruins in 2002-03.
Chiasson misses the mark
Former Boston University forward Alex Chiasson took a hit last Sunday when he scored a $1.2 million arbitration award. According to the Ottawa Sun, the right wing argued for a $2.475 million award, while the Senators pushed for $1 million. Last season, Chiasson scored 11 goals and 15 assists in 76 games. In 2013-14, his first full NHL season, Chiasson scored 13 goals and 22 assists in 79 games for Dallas. So far, Chiasson has been a streaky offensive producer. He hasn’t done enough aside from shooting pucks to earn his coach’s trust, a problem similar to what earned Brett Connolly a flight out of Tampa. Chiasson projects to be the Senators’ No. 4 right wing behind Mark Stone, Bobby Ryan, and Curtis Lazar. The fourth line is not a good spot for a shoot-first player such as Chiasson to land. But he hasn’t earned a spot higher in the lineup.
Departure hints at succession plan
Billerica native Tom Fitzgerald, formerly assistant GM in Pittsburgh, was named to the same position in New Jersey July 24. Fitzgerald’s move underscores the strength of the relationship he has with Devils GM Ray Shero, his former boss in Pittsburgh. Upon his retirement following the 2005-06 season with his hometown Bruins, Fitzgerald transitioned to hockey operations in 2007-08 when Shero hired him as Pittsburgh’s director of player development. Fitzgerald’s move also indicates that he is not first in line as Jim Rutherford’s replacement in Pittsburgh. The favorite to land Pittsburgh’s GM job is Jason Botterill, currently the club’s associate GM.
The USHL held its annual combine this past week outside Chicago. Scouts watched approximately 500 players over a three-day period, which included games and off-ice training. The following fact will make your hair go gray: All players were born in 2000 or 2001. Nice to be young . . . Vancouver GM Jim Benning acquired Brandon Sutter from Pittsburgh on Tuesday. Sutter will be the Canucks’ No. 2 center behind Henrik Sedin. The former Bruins executive paid a big price. By trading two ex-Boston University Terriers, Nick Bonino and Adam Clendening, Benning will be expected to pay double during his next visit to T’s Pub.
Happy retirement to Martin St. Louis, who leaves the NHL as one of just nine players in league history to achieve the career triple crown of winning the Hart Trophy as MVP, the Stanley Cup, and a gold medal in the Olympics as a player. Nobody on the list won multiple times in all three categories.
|Player||MVP season(s)||Cup-winning season(s)||Olympic year(s)|
|Sidney Crosby||2006-07, 2013-14||2008-09||2010, 2014|
|Peter Forsberg||2002-03||1995-96, 2000-01||1994, 2006|
|Dominik Hasek||1996-97, 1997-98||2001-02, 2007-08||1998|
|Jaromir Jagr||1998-99||1990-91, 1991-92||1998|
|Mario Lemieux||1987-88, 1992-93, 1995-96||1990-91, 1991-92||2002|
|Corey Perry||2010-11||2006-07||2010, 2014|
|Chris Pronger||1999-2000||2006-07||2002, 2010|
|Joe Sakic||2000-01||1995-96, 2000-01||2002|
|Martin St. Louis||2003-04||2003-04||2014|