Why Noah Hanifin's six-year contract is (probably) a bargain

He was extremely sheltered in Carolina, but he's still just 21 and shows signs of being a strong possession driver. His $4.95 AAV may look cheap in a few years.
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The Calgary Flames have a strong case as the off-season’s splashiest team, overhauling their roster with a new coach in Bill Peters and free agent signings James Neal and Derek Ryan. General manager Brad Treliving’s most aggressive move, of course, was the draft-weekend blockbuster trade sending defenseman Dougie Hamilton, power forward Micheal Ferland and blueline prospect Adam Fox to the Carolina Hurricanes for defenseman Noah Hanifin and right winger Elias Lindholm. That’s the make-or-break deal for a Flames team with a lot to prove in 2018-19.

Hanifin, 21, joined Calgary as an RFA. Two months later, he has his new contract, announced Thursday: six years with an AAV of $4.95 million. Was it a good deal for the big, mobile rearguard, chosen fifth overall in 2015?

It’s pretty clear what Treliving and the Flames are doing with this pact. It’s the “bet on a bargain,” paying a young defenseman arguably more than the value he’s demonstrated so far in his career but anticipating an upward trajectory that will soon make his cap hit a steal.

We saw the Nashville Predators do it with Roman Josi in June 2013, inking him to a seven-year deal with a $4-million AAV. At the time, Josi was 23 and had only 100 NHL games under his belt. He’d just finished a lockout-shortened season with 18 points, pro-rating to 31 over 82 games. But GM David Poile and the Predators realized what they had in Josi. His ice time had spiked more than five minutes from his rookie to sophomore season. He played more than 23 minutes per game in 2012-13 and formed a great partnership with Shea Weber after Nashville had lost Ryan Suter as a free agent. At first glance, Josi hadn’t earned $4 million a year – and this is $4 million five years, ago, remember – but Nashville bet on him confidently. Now, he’s finished top-seven in Norris Trophy voting three of the past four years and is regularly listed among the league’s biggest steals.

The Stars followed that template with John Klingberg in summer 2015: seven years with an AAV of $4.25 million. He had one season to his name, but it was a breakout effort of 40 points in 65 games. And GM Jim Nill, like Poile, looks like a genius now for recognizing Klingberg’s ceiling and locking him up so early, betting he’d far outproduce the value of the deal. The highest-scoring defensemen over the past three seasons: Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson, Victor Hedman and Klingberg.

Hanifin is younger than Josi and Klingberg were when they signed their contracts and has as many seasons as they had combined at the time of their RFA deals. Hanifin went to his first All-Star Game this past January, too. So does that mean the Flames will soon giggle with glee over getting him for less than a $5-million cap hit?

Working in his favor is he’s already shown signs of being a top-four defenseman despite still being just 21. He’s younger than Ivan Provorov, Aaron Ekblad and Josh Morrissey. But how does Hanifin’s performance compare to Josi’s and Klingberg’s in their contract years?

Hanifin has been eased into the NHL in terms of minutes, topping out at 18:52 and averaging 18:14 over his first three seasons, whereas Josi and Klingberg operated as top-pair guys well north of 20 minutes at the same career juncture. That said, Josi and Klingberg also saw significant power-play time at just under three minutes per game apiece. Hanifin averaged about half as many power-play minutes last year at 1:48. So his ice time doesn’t lag as far behind his comparables as it may seem. None of the three saw much penalty-killing time in his contract year.

What about Hanifin’s actual performance? On the surface, he’s already producing like top-four defenseman. His 10 goals and 32 points last year were impressive considering he got nine of his goals at even strength. Offensively, especially factoring out power play time, he’s close enough to young-version Josi and Klingberg to justify a similar second contract.

What about the deeper offensive and defensive metrics, though? Last season, 133 defensemen played 1,000 or more minutes 5-on-5. Oddly enough, the two leaders in primary points per 60 minutes are the veteran versions of our boys Josi and Klingberg. But Year-3 Hanifin quietly slots in at 20th. His 5-on-5 Corsi: third among all 133 blueliners in that sample. He was eighth in Corsi For per 60 and sixth in Corsi Against per 60. Hanifin graded out amazingly well in shot generation, shot suppression and even-strength offense. Sophomore Josi was middle of the pack at best in the same metrics, and 2014-15 Klingberg was a stud offensively but below average at preventing shot attempts.

Was 2017-18 Hanifin sheltered, though? His most common pairing last season was with Trevor van Riemsdyk, and while their impacts were similar, Hanifin drove possession slightly more than ‘TVR’ did.

Hanifin was definitely sheltered in terms where he started his shifts. In that 1,000-minute sample, he sat near the bottom of the league in defensive zone starts last season, and he and van Riemsdyk had pretty much the easiest defensive assignments in the entire NHL in terms of quality of competition. So coach Peters, who follows Hanifin from Carolina to Calgary, kept Hanifin in bubble wrap last year.

Josi, on the other hand, battled some of the league’s toughest competition according to the Corsi numbers, albeit he did so with Weber. Klingberg was reasonably sheltered, like Hanifin, ranking in the top third of easiest quality of competition in 2014-15.

So what does it all mean? On one hand, Hanifin has faced easy assignments defensively so far as an NHLer. On the other hand, he has shown major offensive potential, and he remains one of the youngest defensemen in the league three seasons into his career. His first season as a Flame will include tougher assignments, but the positive signposts outnumber the negative. There’s a good chance Hanifin’s contract ends up becoming a steal.

Advanced statistics courtesy of corsica.hockey and naturalstattrick.com

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