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Hurricanes prospect Hanifin mature beyond his years

by Kurt Dusterberg

RALEIGH -- Noah Hanifin sat at his locker stall, still catching his breath from a rigorous on-ice workout at Carolina Hurricanes development camp.

When asked what left an impression on him during the busy week, he sounded like a young man who made the most of his freshman year at Boston College.

"We had a really good seminar on leadership this morning, which I got a lot out of," Hanifin said, noting that a local college professor conducted the class. "It was about how important leadership and character is, especially in the sport of hockey. She showed us some movie clips and examples of that, which is pretty cool. I got to write down some notes."

By the end of the July 6-11 camp, Carolina's first pick (No. 5) at the 2015 NHL Draft had signed a three-year, entry-level contract to begin his professional career.

When Hanifin steps on the ice for Carolina's training camp in September, he will be 18 years old. Conventional wisdom suggests that defensemen have a steeper learning curve than forwards, but making the jump from the amateur ranks to the NHL is not impossible for teenage defensemen. Aaron Ekblad, the No. 1 pick by the Florida Panthers in the 2014 draft, entered the League as an 18-year-old last season and won the Calder Trophy, so Hanifin is approaching his professional debut with optimism.

"You do need to have confidence in yourself," he said. "If you're going to make that step, you can't go into the NHL saying, 'Oh my gosh, that's so-and-so.' If you're playing at that level, you have to believe you're there for a reason, that you can play with those guys."

That's also how Hanifin prepared for the start of his collegiate career as a 17-year-old. A year younger than most freshmen, he scored five goals and 23 points in 37 games.

"The biggest thing is I want to challenge myself," he said. "I had the opportunity to go play against guys who were a lot older than myself, and it helped me a lot."

Hanifin gave himself a chance to grow off the ice too. At 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, he already has the frame of an NHL defenseman. By enrolling at Boston College, he added a different kind of maturity.

"Away from the rink, you get to be a little more well-rounded," he said. "You can focus on your studies and meet a lot of good people. I think BC has a lot of good connections, for maybe after hockey. We only had about 38 games, so I had a lot of time to practice and develop my skills and get in the weight room."

And in the classroom?

"I took the core classes," he said. "I did pretty well. I was a little nervous stepping into college, especially at a good university, but I did all right."

The Hurricanes organization is flush with strong defensive prospects. Hayden Fleury, selected in the first round (No. 7) of the 2014 draft, will push Hanifin for a spot on the roster. The two prospects were roommates during development camp.

"Hayden is a great player," Hanifin said. "He plays a similar style to me. That's something this organization is looking for, mobile defensemen who can move the puck and jump in the play."

It was no accident the two defensemen were paired together for the week. Carolina envisions the two players being cornerstones on the blue line for years to come.

"It's been nice to get to know him," Hanifin said. "You never know how long we could be linked together. It's been a really cool experience."

Despite noticeable excitement in the front office, expectations are realistic in Carolina. The Hurricanes have missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs six straight seasons, so this is a time for tempered enthusiasm. Hanifin's presence represents a realistic opportunity to develop a player who may become a true franchise defenseman someday.

"In all honesty, [this camp] is a bit of a feeling-out process," Hurricanes coach Bill Peters said. "We get to know him, he gets to know a little about us. He gets to see our city and our program. There's a lot of positive things there. He's ahead of the curve, for sure."

With his first professional contract signed, Hanifin cannot return to college hockey. So the Hurricanes will have to decide whether to throw him into the NHL mix or send him to the Charlotte Checkers of the American Hockey League.

Hanifin, someone who likes a challenge, is polite but firm about his preference.

"My goal is to play in the NHL," he said. "I don't want to play in the American league. That's what my focus is. I'm trying to get ready for that."

If Hanifin makes his way straight to the Hurricanes, he knows what will make the difference.

"I think my skating ability is my strongest asset," he said. "If I were to step into the NHL, I think it would be the one thing that would help me do it, along with my hockey sense."

Hanifin also might deliver some intangibles. At 18, his personal poise is evident right away. He makes eye contact and answers questions directly. He has the makings of a leader in the locker room.

"I don't think [personal maturity] is anything new to him," Peters said. "Our group will be very open and welcoming to him. They see him as a guy who is going to help them. Everyone wants to get it turned around and win hockey games. It doesn't matter if you're 18 or 28, we want to do that. He's going to be a positive influence on our team."

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