Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Noah Hanifin doesn't sound like a rookie when he begins breaking down the game he loves.
The fifth pick in the 2015 NHL Draft is a rookie on paper, but his performance on the ice is proving otherwise. Hanifin is also mature enough to realize his limits in the locker room among those who have been there and done that.
"You can tell by the conversations you have with him that he's a very mature boy for an 18-year-old," Hurricanes assistant coach Steve Smith said. "He asks all the right questions and goes through the exercises on the ice on a daily basis without any resistance at all.
Hanifin has role model in Nathan Gerbe
Carolina Hurricanes left wing Nathan Gerbe has taken a special interest in rookie defenseman Noah Hanifin.
In addition to being his teammate, he's also his landlord. Hanifin has lived with the Gerbe family since training camp.
"You forget what it's like as an 18-year-old in terms of living on your own, so I think it's been helpful that my wife and I have been able to transition him to the professional life and the responsibilities you have with taking care of your body and taking care of things at the rink," Gerbe said.
Gerbe, 28, said Hanifin doesn't cook, but does help out around the house.
"Nathan is a good role model," Hanifin said. "He's really disciplined with his body and what he eats and how he takes care of himself on off days. So, for me being a young guy, it's really good to be able to learn from someone like that."
Hanifin said he enjoys the "nice family feeling" in the Gerbe household, which includes their 5-month-old baby girl Blake Lynn and two Bernese Mountain dogs named Johnny Cash and Tuxedo.
"He's a kid that wants to learn and wants to be great in the League, you can tell," Gerbe said. "He's young but mature for his age. He's solid on the ice, very calm, so I think the Hurricanes got a real good draft pick there."
-- Mike G. Morreale
"He wants to learn, wants to see video and wants to know what he's doing right."
The 6-foot-3, 206-pound left-handed shooter offered this detailed description of how he believes NHL defensemen are changing the game.
"The offensive game for a defenseman is changing," he said. "It's a 4-on-3 League now. By that I mean the defenseman is always joining the play as the trail guy. He's the one getting the puck now. You have the guy carrying the puck, you have a middle guy driving the lane and a guy wide, then a defenseman trailing.
"That's where the offense is starting to come from these days and I'm beginning to realize that jumping in the play, trailing late, and getting the passes in good spots from guys who are now good enough to get you the puck are the ways you create opportunities."
Hanifin will turn 19 on Jan. 25.
"You want the coaches to trust in you so you need to be reliable in your defensive zone before anything else," Hanifin said.
He's been able to think and process the game as well as any teenage defenseman in the NHL.
"That's what you want to see when you're watching an 18-year-old," Hurricanes captain Eric Staal said. "You want to see the potential, see the improvement. Noah is definitely soaking in a lot from our staff and management and from guys that have been around for a long time."
Staal may play a different position but he has something in common with Hanifin. They were each 18 when they began their NHL careers.
"He's going to be a great player in this League for a very long time, and it's just about taking the right steps forward as he develops," Staal said.
Smith said he knew Hanifin was ready to play in the NHL from the moment he saw him skate.
"He has incredible acceleration," Smith said. "Scouts use a word that isn't in the dictionary to describe players like Hanifin: escapability. He has the ability to take one or two steps and get away from danger. He's got a good understanding of puck management."
Hanifin said he was taught early on by the Hurricanes coaching staff that "danger is always behind you."
"You have to be aware who's behind you and who is back checking because guys in this League aren't lazy," Hanifin said. "They're working hard, getting back for pucks."
Smith was impressed with the fact Hanifin didn't enter training camp with any significant bad habits, at least none he saw on the ice.
"Most times when you're dealing with young players, you're dealing with a bad habit that you're trying to break, but Noah doesn't have a bad habit," Smith said. "He still has to learn the defensive side of the game though. His stick and his feet were so good in college that he could get away with walking into a corner and using that stick or his speed effectively to take away the puck. In the NHL, guys are much bigger, stronger and faster, so he has to be a little more physical while maintaining the defensive side positions when players are coming out of the corner."
Hanifin has been paired with Ryan Murphy for most of the season, but has seen plenty of time on the power play, and coach Bill Peters said he won't think twice about rotating him in on the penalty-killing unit as well.
"He can be more physical and he knows that," Peters said. "He can be a guy who's dynamic when he skates and moves his feet, and that's what I expect from him."
Hanifin said attention to detail is paramount at this level.
"There are no easy shifts or games anymore," he said. "Every time you get on the ice there's a challenge, whether you're playing skilled guys or fourth-liners who are still skilled but work and are always in the right spots and on the back check. The little things are so important at this level.
"No one makes mistakes and you have to always be aware."
Murphy said it's unbelievable how quickly players are beginning to break into the League.
"Everyone in our room realizes how rare it is for an 18-year-old to play their first year in the NHL, but it's an elite group that's able to make that jump right away and Noah is one of them right now," Murphy said.
Smith is proud with how well Hanifin has adapted in such a short period of time.
"The difficult part for a young defenseman as opposed to a forward is you're not only learning systems, learning how to deal with the speed of the game, but also learning about opposing players and their tendencies," Smith said. "Only after you see a guy once or twice can you start to get that feel.
"So there's a learning curve in learning the League and it must happen pretty quickly."
Hanifin has been taking names and numbers the best he can.
"Every team has someone that's special, and they're all different," Hanifin said. "It's Nicklas Backstrom and (Alex) Ovechkin one night, and they're both unbelievable and different, and then it's Drew Doughty and Jeff Carter. Every team has that unbelievable guy, so you have to be aware of that, but it's been cool to go up against them."