Ron Hainsey is 36-years old and closing in on his final days as an NHL defenseman. While a very small number of players find work into their 40’s, it’s rare and not something you see very often. Hainsey understands this, and that’s why his recent trade to the Pittsburgh Penguins was so special.
“Not having a great opportunity like this for so long, it’s something to get pretty excited about“, Hainsey told the media following his arrival in Pittsburgh.
Hainsey hasn’t exactly been what you’d call a journeyman since getting drafted by the Montreal Canadians with the 13th overall pick in 2000, but he’s certainly seen his share of ‘new homes’. He didn’t see NHL ice until the 2002-03 season, and he was up and down between the NHL and AHL quite often before joining the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2005.
In 2008, after netting 19 goals and 83 total points through 213 games with Columbus, the stay-at-home defenseman joined the Atlanta Thrashers and ultimately, the Winnipeg Jets when the team relocated. He followed up that stint with three seasons in Carolina, the previous home of current Penguins’ GM Jim Rutherford. For those counting at home, that’s 17 years since he was drafted into the league, he’s with his fifth franchise and somehow, he’s staring down the first postseason action of his lengthy career. That’s what made this recent injury so frustrating. Was he really going to miss his first chance at playoff hockey due to injury?
Thankfully, the timing of his return couldn’t be better.
A Much Needed Boost
Following practice on Thursday, head coach Mike Sullivan called Hainsey a game-time decision for Friday night but added that things look very promising. On Friday, following the Penguins’ game day skate at Madison Square Garden, Sullivan made it clear that Hainsey would almost certainly play against the Rangers, returning from a seven game absence.
#Pens coach Sullivan said Guentzel and Hainsey are "highly probable" to play tonight vs. NYR -MC
— Pens Inside Scoop (@PensInsideScoop) March 31, 2017
Hainsey’s original estimate was week-to-week and like most injuries in the NHL, especially this time of year, very little information was available on his ailment. Whatever the case, he’s healthy and ready to jump in when the Penguins need him most. Their depth defensemen have been overmatched recently and the Penguins’ current four-game losing streak proves it.
Will he need time to get back on track?
Missing an extended period of time is never easy, but it’s even more impactful when you’re still trying to find your fit with a new organization. Hainsey was tasked with debuting on a big stage — playing a cross-state rival at Heinz Field in the NHL’s final Stadium Series event on February 25 — and he immediately impressed. After plenty of questions as to whether or not he truly fit the Penguins uptempo style, he proved that he’s mobile enough and quite capable with the puck while still being the defensively responsible player Pittsburgh needed so badly. And while he isn’t overly physical, he uses his large frame much more efficiently than many gave him credit for.
He’s essentially the player they need Olli Maatta to be, and exactly what they hope he’ll still become. And his ability to hit the ground running upon being acquired means he should be able to pick up where he left off quickly.
A Solidifying Figure
While Pittsburgh is known for their scoring punch and cast of offensively-minded defensemen like Kris Letang, Justin Schultz, and Trevor Daley, their playing style largely depends on responsible two-way defenders to flank those individuals. Brian Dumoulin has emerged as a top-pairing defenseman while Ian Cole fits that mold alongside Schultz. However, with Maatta’s struggles, the Penguins have been searching for a second pairing blue liner to fill that role with Daley. Well, they found him.
Hainsey has had a positive impact on multiple offensive defensemen, including a small sample size with Mark Streit as a Penguin and during his days in Carolina with Justin Faulk. While he doesn’t necessarily contribute much on the offensive side of the puck, his strengths lie in his shot suppression abilities, responsibility in his own zone and providing his partner with a trusted sidekick that allows them to join the rush with the confidence he has things covered on the back end.
It’s hard to stress the importance of defenders like this.
According to Stats.HockeyAnalysis.Com, Hainsey’s most frequent opponents at even strength in the last two seasons consists of Patric Hornqvist, John Tavares, Phil Kessel, Kyle Palmieri, and Sidney Crosby among others. Those matchups are a testament to how reliable he is against an opponents’ top forwards, a role Pittsburgh will need him to play throughout the postseason if they earn the right to face a deep team like the Washington Capitals, a likely second round opponent if the Penguins make it that far. Hainsey’s return is nothing but good news — and combined with Guentzel re-entering the lineup — it’s the first step to a healthy Penguins team preparing to defend their Stanley Cup title.