From The Star
Mike Babcock was talking about the trials and tribulations of developing young NHL defencemen, specifically about moulding Morgan Rielly into the elite back-ender the Maple Leafs hope he can become.
The Leafs coach said it is mostly a matter of discovering the appropriate balance between risk and reward, between making a play and making a mistake. And Rielly, as much as he is making progress in mastering the fundamentals of those fine arts, also played a game in Philadelphia on Tuesday in which he made a late turnover that led to a Flyers goal and nearly cost the Leafs a win.
Still, Babcock said, it’s important not to pick apart your own players too mercilessly, even if it’s the typical coach’s tendency to over-critique one’s own players while idealizing those on other teams.
“We like ’em all on the other team, because all we see are all the good things they do. And then all their coach sees is all the turnovers they make and all the times they get caught on the wrong side and all the bad sort-outs,” Babcock said. “That’s just hockey.”
Whether or not Babcock liked ’em all on the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday, when the Leafs dropped a 1-0 overtime loss, it’s a safe bet he liked at least one: Noah Hanifin, Carolina’s 18-year-old defenceman. It’s been widely repeated by multiple hockey-world sources that, in the lead-up to the June draft, Babcock expressed a forceful opinion in internal meetings that the Leafs should use the fourth overall pick to select the smooth-skating six-foot-three blueliner from Boston College.
The Leafs, of course, did not choose the big, puck-moving defenceman their coach coveted. They opted for the small, puck-ragging forward favoured by Mark Hunter, the director of player personnel. And so Mitch Marner is Maple Leafs property, playing for the OHL’s London Knights. And Hanifin is the only defenceman drafted in 2015 playing in the NHL.
If coaches “like ’em all on the other team,” certainly there’s a lot to like about Hanifin — especially if you’re a coach like Babcock who values defence above all and mobile defenders above almost everything else.
The Carolina player and the Leafs coach would have been a fine match. Hanifin even wears No. 5 honour of his favourite player, Nick Lidstrom, the Hall of Famer Babcock coached in Detroit and reveres to this day as the gold standard for modern blueliners.
“Growing up in that era, (Lidstrom) was the best defenceman in the league and he was someone I liked to watch,” Hanifin said. “As I got older, I liked to watch him more.”
He’s not yet playing like Lidstrom, of course — nobody has since the Swede retired in 2012 — but he’s more than holding his own, averaging about 17 minutes of ice time a game, posting positive possession numbers, compiling a goal and nine assists in 45 games played.
John-Michael Liles, the ex-Leafs defenceman now playing in Carolina, raved about Hanifin’s maturity and likened him to a young Victor Hedman, the horse of the Tampa Bay blue line.
“I know that’s a high bar to set,” Liles said. “But you think about the way (Hedman) can control the game, and I think Hanny has the potential to do that, too.”
Said Bill Peters, the Carolina coach: “He’s got a huge upside to him. We like him. We like him a lot. He is a great skater, let’s not kid ourselves . . . We’re real happy with him, his ability to skate the puck.”
The happiness hasn’t come without some hiccups. When an early-season opportunity on the power play, for instance, didn’t go well, Peters relieved him of the responsibility. But a few weeks later, Peters said he gave Hanifin another try with the man advantage and . . . well, he’s now third among Carolina defencemen in power-play ice time. On Thursday, through an otherwise uneventful opening two periods, nobody on either team, veteran or rookie, had spent more time on the ice than Hanifin, who played 15:23 of the opening 40 minutes — only slightly ahead of Rielly’s 15:20. Hanifin ended up with more than 21 minutes of ice time all told as Eddie Lack got the shutout and Jordan Staal scored the winner 2:54 into overtime.
“He’s been real good on (the power play),” Peters said. “That’s the growth in his game. Every time he’s been given something he’s either succeeded with it or we’ve taken it away, whether it be ice time or situations. And then when he gets it the second or third time, he’s good. So, a real good, exciting young player.”
The Hurricanes have their share of those on the back end. Along with Hanifin, they rolled out a couple of other rookie defencemen on Thursday — 21-year-olds Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce. Maybe it’s not an ideal developmental situation, half a defensive corps learning from scratch. But Peters was frank about the situation: The trio of rookies are simply the organization’s best options at the moment. And the Hurricanes are making sure they’re nurtured properly.
“If they make a mistake, they’re going right back out there,” Peters said. “And they’ve gotten better.”
Still, even Hanifin was a healthy scratch a few times in October and November. “And he will be again,” Peters said.
“What happens with those young guys, they hit the wall. You see it. I see it. They won’t admit it. But you see their energy levels flailing and all of a sudden we just take the guy out and freshen him up a little bit,” Peters said. “It happens. I think it’s mental. It’s everything. It’s the travel . . .”
As Peters pointed out, two years ago, Hanifin was playing high school hockey in the Boston area. This season the Hurricanes have already been to the Western Conference on three separate multi-game road trips.
“I don’t think they had any (high school) games out in the Pacific time zone,” Peters said. “They might have. I don’t know.”
Hanifin, for his part, said he was “aware” the Leafs had expressed interest in him before the draft. Then again, so had every other team with a remote chance of landing him.
“I knew it was a possibility I could be taken (by Toronto),” Hanifin said. “It’s a hard decision for teams. I’m sure the guy they got will be a great player, too.”
Don’t get it wrong: It’s too early to say whether the Leafs made the wrong decision on draft day. But what we can say is this: In the race to NHL stardom, where few reach the finish line, Hanifin has carved out a healthy head start on the guy the Leafs got.
Still, it’s worth reminding Toronto’s hockey fans what Babcock was saying on Thursday: It’s important not to over-critique one’s own assets while idealizing the other team’s.