Boston College freshman defenseman Noah Hanifin didn't hesitate when asked if freshman forward Jack Eichel of rival Boston University would be able to beat him wide in a one-on-one situation.
The question certainly has merit since Hanifin and Eichel have seen a lot of each other over the years. They were teammates for the United States Under-18 National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., teammates for the United States National Junior Team at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship, and are now opponents in Hockey East.
The fact the question was even posed to Hanifin is telling enough to how talented a player he is, considering Eichel is regarded as a generational star, a virtual lock as a projected top-two pick in the 2015 NHL Draft.
Noah Hanifin is ranked third among North American skaters on NHL CSS' midterm rankings. (Photo: Jon Quackenbos/Boston College)
"He's an unbelievable player and person," Eichel said of Hanifin. "He's a good guy to be around and his game on the ice speaks for itself. I don't need to tell you how good he is. He's a strong skater and smart defenseman."
Many believe Hanifin is not only the best defenseman available in this year's draft class, but that he will likely be chosen after Erie Otters captain Connor McDavid and Eichel are off the board in the first round on June 26 at BB&T Center in Sunrise, Fla.
It wasn't surprising to learn Hanifin was No. 3 on NHL Central Scouting's midterm list of the top North American skaters eligible for the draft -- behind No. 1 McDavid and No. 2 Eichel.
"That's nice but Connor and Jack are excellent players and different players," Hanifin said. "But I'm confident in myself and I would never say 'I don't think I'm in that group' because I'm always trying to get better."
Dan Marr, NHL Director of Central Scouting, said he hasn't seen a defenseman of Hanifin's caliber in some time who understands and plays defense the way he can.
"I asked him who taught him to play defense the way he does and he told me [Colorado Avalanche scout] Neil Shea [of Quincy, Mass.], who coached him at a young age," Marr said.
"Everybody looks at Noah and says he's a gifted offensive player, and he is, but what makes him so special is he gets that you have to play defense first and the offense will come," Marr continued. "He truly grasps the game from defense to offense; his transition is so quick."
Hanifin (6-foot-3, 203 pounds) accelerated his studies at St. Sebastian's School in Needham, Mass. to enter Boston College a year early in 2014-15. He is one of two American-born defensemen eligible for the 2015 NHL Draft to accomplish such a feat; University of Michigan freshman Zachary Werenski, No. 6 on Central Scouting's midterm rankings, is the other.
"I'm on a defense with players older than me, so it's good," Hanifin said. "I can learn little tips from them. They all played college hockey last year and after practice there's always stuff I can work on with them to get better. That goes for [Boston College assistant coach] Greg Brown [of Southborough, Mass.] as well. He's helped all of us. After practice and before practice we're always working with him. I think we have a really strong D corps at BC this year, so it's good to learn from the older guys."
Hanifin began the season working alongside New Jersey Devils prospect Steve Santini, but a wrist injury to the latter forced Eagles coach Jerry York to play him with Florida Panthers prospect Ian McCoshen for much of the first half of the season.
The transition to college hasn't been too difficult for Hanifin, who is enrolled in the College of Arts and Sciences. He has four goals, 16 points and has taken 56 shots on goal in 27 games for the Eagles (17-9-2). He had 17 goals and 74 points in 83 career high school games at St. Sebastian's and 10 goals and 45 points in 59 games for the USNTDP.
"I'm more of an offensive defenseman; I like to rely on my skating a lot and rush the puck up ice and model my game after Drew Doughty and Duncan Keith," Hanifin said. "They are two guys I like to watch and study because I play a similar game to them."
If he didn't opt for Boston College, Hanifin could have played for the Quebec Remparts in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. The Remparts selected Hanifin in the second round (No. 26) of the 2013 QMJHL draft. His goal he said, however, was to always play college hockey.
"Quebec offers a lot for a young player but I really wanted to play at BC," Hanifin said. "It was a dream since I started hockey. When the opportunity came it was hard to say no. I think I made the right decision, but it was one I had to think about."
York is certainly glad he decided to take the college route.
"We're extremely pleased that not only is he a very good hockey player but he's an outstanding teammate," York said. "He's respected in the locker room because of his work habits and humble nature and he just turned 18 [on Jan. 25]. He's got a lot of qualities going for him besides his ability to play hockey and that makes it more enjoyable to have him around every day.
"Cleary his skating ability is at the NHL level right now and his puck handling and skills are excellent. He just needs to be little more assertive in the defensive zone but that will come with time."
So does Hanifin think Eichel would get the better of him one-on-one?
"Jack is a special player and will be for a long time," Hanifin said. "It's nice being able to play against a guy of his caliber [in college] because he makes me better.
"But he wouldn't beat me one-on-one."