PROVIDENCE -- Boston College's offensive zone possession collapsed, and suddenly, Denver forward Daniel Doremus faced a stretch of wide-open ice. With a few seconds remaining in the second period, Doremus skated through the neutral zone and into Eagles territory, focusing his attention on the only player in front of the net, BC goaltender Thatcher Demko.
He should have been more worried about who was behind him.
BC freshman defenseman Noah Hanifin skated about 130 feet and caught Doremus before he could challenge Demko, defusing the threat with a sweeping poke check.
"The puck is transitioning, and he picked it up," Hanifin said. "I saw the trail guy behind, so I didn't know if it was going to be a 2-on-1 or not, so I was kind of pacing myself because I didn't want to go to him and have him throw it across for an open guy. I looked back and [Michael Matheson] was there, so I told him to go to him, and I basically got stick on puck and luckily, the puck went into the corner."
By all accounts, Hanifin, NHL Central Scouting's projected third overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, is not a robot, but his brain processes hockey with a machine-like efficiency. His positioning is superb, his instincts are deadly, and his offensive and defensive decision-making continues to improve and impress. Since he accelerated out of St. Sebastian's School to join BC as a 17-year-old, Hanifin's physical tools, his 6-foot-3, 205-pound frame and natural skating ability have been relentlessly touted at the expense of his overlooked hockey brain. That combination of body and mind has turned Hanifin into the most exciting college hockey prospect not named Jack Eichel.
Hanifin's freshman season ended Saturday in BC's 5-2 loss against the Pioneers in the regional round of the NCAA Tournament. He finished the game with an uncharacteristic minus-three rating, but consistently showed off the talent that has turned him into one of BC's best players. Hanifin played in 37 of the Eagles' 38 games and ended the season with five goals, 18 assists, 16 penalty minutes, and a plus-12 rating. Total minutes played aren't recorded in college hockey, but Hanifin logged a tremendous amount of ice time for the Eagles, earning a key role on the power play and penalty kill. He often looked like BC's best skater, and consistently improved throughout the season.
"I think I really just identified my strengths and weaknesses a lot more," Hanifin said, reflecting on his year. "When you're playing at this level, you're playing against a lot of stronger, better guys. I think this year I really learned what I need to work on over the summer, obviously, and get better at what I am strong at and what I can continue to get better at."
Hanifin's abilities were on full display against Denver. He picked his head up to make multiple pinpoint, diagonal passes across the neutral zone. His long wingspan gives him a deceptively wide poke check radius, and he broke up a number of rushes using his stick and his body. As an offensive-minded defenseman, he catalyzed BC's attacks. At one point, he was skating faster backward than some players skate forward. Hanifin said his biggest weakness, and thus his greatest area of focus, is his ability to read the defensive zone.
"He certainly was an outstanding player coming to BC, but he's got better," BC head coach Jerry York said." Every month I think he's progressed. It's very difficult for a 17-year-old to come in and play at this level. I thought he showed those signs early, but as the year went on, he became just a better player from a defensive perspective and an offensive perspective. We're very, very proud to have him with us."
Back in early October, BC associate head coach Greg Brown stopped a drill in the middle of practice to chew Hanifin out for repeatedly messing up his role at the point. Five months later, Hanifin has become a monster at the point: his ability to hang around the blue line and effortlessly switch between offense and defense in a split second might be the most defining characteristic of his game. One of the most common sights in a BC game is Hanifin looming between the dot and the blue line, slightly hunched in a ready position, waiting to take a slapshot or fire in a low, rebound-friendly puck.
The end of the season is very raw and just behind him, and Hanifin said he doesn't know what his immediate future looks like between now and the Draft.
"I'm not sure right now," Hanifin said. "I'm just going to spend some time with my teammates, it was a tough loss obviously, and it was an unbelievable team to be a part of. I think right now I'm still focused on spending time with them, and obviously the Draft stuff will come later."