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'LOOKING TO TAKE ANOTHER STEP'

Hanifin is back, feeling good, and ready to make an impact for Flames

by RYAN DITTRICK @ryandittrick / CalgaryFlames.com

The plan was to ramp things up. 

Slowly. 

Take it day by day and evaluate the progress, intensify the workload and dial it all back, if needed. 

Now, it's clear that Noah Hanifin and that surgically repaired shoulder of his are just fine.

"It definitely feels good to be back and playing games again," said Hanifin, who logged a team-high 23:25 on Wednesday in Winnipeg. "I was kind of itching throughout the preseason to get a couple games in. I think it's definitely going to take a couple games - there were a couple areas, especially with the puck, that I have to get a little bit better at and that will come hopefully by the next game.

"Just timing and everything like that, but that will come - that's pretty normal in the preseason. 

"I'm pretty lucky and happy to get a couple games in before the season starts."

Playing in only his second exhibition tilt since undergoing a season-ending shoulder surgery late in the 2020-21 campaign, Hanifin logged a team-high 23:25 on Wednesday in the Manitoba capital. 

It's been a long road back for the 24-year-old, who admits the first few months after the procedure were "tough" and certainly not without pain, but he turned a corner in early July and was able to get back on track in time for the new year.  

And he hasn't missed a beat. 

"It's different," Hanifin said of getting some bumps in again. "There's no way you can really mimic that in the summer. You try and battle and do what you can to prepare, but once you get into a real game, there's no other feeling like that. It takes time, especially coming off an injury, it's more mental. You've got to mentally challenge yourself to get into the battle and trust it. You have to trust the recovery and I feel each game I've felt a little more confident with that."

 

Video: "There's definitely another level."

 

Hanifin is one of the most important ingredients of this Flames roster - especially in the wake of Mark Giordano's exit to the Pacific rival Seattle Kraken.

He took an obscene number of steps last year, playing top-pairing minutes with Chris Tanev for a good chunk of the campaign and delivering in a big way, with elite numbers at both ends of the ice. 

The usual data points, like shot volume, shot quality, scoring chance ratio and, most importantly, goals for and against, were heavily tilted in Hanifin's favour - and no other pair came close to the 108 high-danger looks the talented twosome manufactured on the backend. 

He was truly a beast in all areas of the game, playing a solid, structured game defensively, kickstarting the breakout and potting four goals and 15 points of his own.

Best of all? 

He already has 436 games of NHL experience and doesn't turn 25 for another four months. 

In his mind, he's only getting warmed up.

Asked whether or not the surgery will derail any of his progress as a No.-1 defender in this league, Hanifin scoffed at the idea.

"Obviously, anytime you have the surgery, it sucks," Hanifin said. "But it was fairly good timing, to be ready for the season. I got a good month, month-and-a-half of skating and working out, getting ready for the season and getting that confidence in my shoulder back. 

"I think that was helpful and I felt that at camp, having that plan and ramping it up throughout practice.

"I feel good. 

"I'm definitely looking to take another step."

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