Ron Hainsey is a grizzled veteran defenseman who’s played for seven teams over 16 seasons. He’s not the youthful player he was when he broke into the NHL with the Montreal Canadiens in 2002-03, and he’s never scored more than nine goals in any season. His best scoring season was 2008-09 when he had six goals and 33 assists (39 points in 81 games) with the Atlanta Thrashers. That really isn’t much to write home about.
Yet, his skillset and experience make him both a valuable player and resource for his current team, the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Not everyone agrees, I know. When I wrote an earlier post (Nov. 30, 2018) about Hainsey, a number of fans disagreed with my assessment about his value to the team. Most commented on his lack of speed. They pointed out that Hainsey plays too many minutes with the team’s top four, which at 37 years old, he’s too old to do. They might be right.
But head coach Mike Babcock trusts him. More often than not, although the young stars shine more brightly on the scoresheet, Babcock deploys Hainsey when things get dicey, to settle things down, to take the pressure off or to teach a young player.
Hainsey and Morgan Rielly
In a recent post about Travis Dermott, I shared Babcock’s simple plan for shaping his defense this season. He believes his trio of Hainsey, Jake Muzzin and Jake Gardiner can play with anyone and the rest will sort itself out in time. Because he believes in this trio, he’s been experimenting with the team’s blue line since Muzzin arrived.
Hainsey, Babcock’s most versatile defenseman, moves wherever he’s needed but has been paired with Rielly for two seasons because the older Hainsey is a foil for the smooth-skating youngster. Playing those two together allowed Rielly to explore his explosive offense with the safety net of Hainsey’s defensive steadiness.
Hainsey did his job well. In fact, part of the reason Kyle Dubas signed the 37-year-old free agent in 2017 was to give Rielly, then 23, stability. It’s hard to remember now, looking back, that Rielly’s 2016-17 season was less than stellar. He finished with only 27 points and a minus-20 rating.
But, since playing with Hainsey, Rielly’s become a No. 1 defenseman. He was great last season (in 2017-18, he scored six goals and 46 assists in 76 games), but he’s been even better this season (15 goals and 42 assists in 58 games). Not surprisingly, he’s being touted for the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive player.
It isn’t lost on Rielly that Hainsey has helped. “I think [Ron] had a pretty good impact on me, just him being a veteran and being around the league a long time,” Rielly noted. He added about his young teammate Dermott: “I think that’s what’s going to happen with Travis as well. Dermy is a great skater, a great puck mover, a good player. Hainsey has that reputation of being a good leader, being a good veteran and those [players] are important.”
When you look at the numbers, Hainsey’s contributions might not immediately jump out. He’s had only four goals and 12 assists in 58 games this season. Scoring is not an expectation but solid play is, and he’s delivering. Aged as he is, he’s tied for third in the NHL with a plus-26 rating. The Calgary Flames’ Mark Giordano is the NHL leader with plus-28.
Hainsey and Dermott
With Muzzin’s acquisition, Babcock has taken the opportunity to move Hainsey to the third pairing with Dermott. This move shouldn’t be seen as a demotion. Instead, it’s another chance for Hainsey to mentor a young defenseman, just as he did with Rielly.
Babcock noted that Dermot has, “to keep growing, and that’s what Ron Hainsey is going to do for him, is you’ve got to stand in the right spot in the D zone. The puck can’t come through you in the D zone; you can’t step up and have people go by you.”
Related: Grading the Maple Leafs’ Backend
Playing with Hainsey should appeal to any young defenseman, and Dermott sees it: “[Ron’s] a great guy to look up to, especially for me where the defensive part of my game is the part I need to focus on the most,” he said. “Just having a guy like that beside me, it’s going to be great for me going forward this season and for my career. I’ll be learning a lot from him.”
Babcock sees it, too: “[Dermott’s issues] are all the things that are no different than Morgan Rielly. Everyone raves about you, but you’re a dash all the time. The puck is going in your net all the time. So you have to figure that out over time. That’s what the league is all about.”
Dermott has a chance to become an elite defenseman, but he must first gain the kind of experience that builds his confidence, through success or failure. Hockey is a sport in which the bounces sometimes don’t go your way, as the Maple Leafs learned when they were stoned by New York Rangers’ Alexandar Georgiev’s 55-save performance on Feb. 10.
My guess is that, for the remainder of the season, Hainsey will play a fair bit with Dermott. This pairing will help Dermott fit the pieces of his game together. Hainsey will help the young defenseman become more comfortable, learn the defensive part of the game and fix mistakes.
What Happens After This Season?
Hainsey becomes an unrestricted free agent after this season. With the young prospects coming from the Toronto Marlies and the recent upgrade on the Maple Leafs blue line, I don’t see him signing another contract with the team as a player.
However, here’s a suggestion. I can see Hainsey coming back as a coach. His mentorship has already proven valuable to the team. In fact, by helping the team’s young defensemen take his place, he’s made himself less needed as a player.
Because a number of young defensemen will soon be on the team, I believe Hainsey should stay as a coach. If Babcock doesn’t think so, I know head coach Ken Hitchcock liked Hanisey when they were together with the Columbus Blue Jackets.