Noah Hanifin (Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Hurricanes have a trio of freshman blueliners in Noah Hanifin, Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin. All three played college hockey last season, but now they're putting up minutes in the NHL and helping Carolina move pucks swiftly out of the defensive zone.
The Carolina Hurricanes may not make the playoffs this season, but take a look at their blueline and there's a lot to be excited for in the near future. Justin Faulk is already the best player on the team, while prospects such as Haydn Fleury, Trevor Carrick and Roland McKeown are on their way. In the middle, you have NHL rookies Noah Hanifin, Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin, all of whom are contributing well beyond their experience. It must be fun to project what this 'D' corps will be like in three years and in fact, that's exactly what the Canes are doing.
“You do have to project now due to the salary cap," said assistant GM and director of hockey operations Mike Vellucci. "And it is intriguing. We’re very deep on defense. We didn’t think these guys would be up this early and doing this well, but that’s good for us, obviously.”
Hanifin came straight from the draft podium, leaving Boston College after just one season. He's already quarterbacking the power play, playing solid minutes and putting up positive possession numbers.
"What we like the most is that he can move," Vellucci said. "He can get back to pucks, makes a great first pass and we don’t spend a lot of time in our zone. His physical and mental maturity for his age is outstanding.”
Pesce is another big kid who can skate well and though he's a couple years older than Hanifin, he also surprised with how fast he came along. After a few games in the minors, Pesce got the call when veteran James Wisniewski went down long-term (knee).
“We tell all our young guys, when you get your opportunity, makes the most of it," Vellucci said. "And he did. He was impactful right away.”
As for Slavin, Vellucci loves the Colorado College alum's head for the game. Slavin boasts size, but also hockey sense and hand-eye co-ordination that allows him to knock down pucks and know when to close gaps or stand up on the play.
With Pesce coming from the University of New Hampshire, all three youngsters are NCAA products. With college hockey's forgiving schedule, this year has been – and will continue to be – an adjustment in terms of workload. After all, the college schedule features about half the games of an NHL campaign.
"You’re playing almost every other day and that’s an adjustment from college hockey for me," Hanifin said. "The skill and the strength of the game is a lot higher, so the physical aspect has been difficult, but I’m starting to manage my body.”
Getting advice from the team's veterans has helped. Pesce noted that managing his sleep is priority No. 1, so off-days feature naps. He is also well aware of the potential for burn-out and though he tries not to think about it, he also prepped for the possibility in the summer by augmenting his diet.
“I try to stay organic," Pesce said. "I did it this summer and it gave me some beneficial energy for my workouts and it has definitely worked out during the season.”
Not that it's all going to be sunshine. The Canes after all, are chasing a playoff spot and there will be teachable moments. Hanifin has been a healthy scratch and coach Bill Peters forewarned that any of the young guys could see themselves watching from the press box as the season wends around.
"All young guys hit a wall," Peters said. "They don't want to admit it, but they do."
There was also a very real moment on Hanifin's very first pro shift, during a pre-season game against the Pittsburgh Penguins. The youngster pinched along the wall for a puck, only to see the dangerous Phil Kessel chip it past him.
“I turned around and Sidney Crosby was on a breakaway," Hanifin said. "That was a pretty good welcome-to-the-NHL moment.”
But with every game comes new adjustments, more experience and more confidence. And once this crew gets up to peak NHL form, the Hurricanes are going to be rather daunting on the back end.