**Administrators Note: Please welcome new contributor Oliver Fisher to Leafs Hub. This is one of many articles he will be posting here at the site**
When looking at the 2017-18 Toronto Maple Leafs season so far, it would be easy for your eyes to be drawn towards certain stats and pieces of information that point towards the success that the team has achieved with their 14-8-0 record thus far.
Auston Matthews, Nazem Kadri and James van Riemsdyk have all amassed 10 goals, with the former breaching the 20-point mark after playing just 18 games. Morgan Rielly, Mitch Marner and William Nylander have all registered double digits in assists as the Leafs sit on the same amount of goals as the red-hot Tampa Bay Lightning, who have amassed a league-high 80GF.
What you might not notice however is the men who have upped their game dramatically in recent weeks, contributing to the recent turn in form. Heading into the 17/18 season, there were question marks over the Leafs’ defence, and understandably so. A core of Rielly (coming off a down year), Gardiner, Zaitsev, Borgman and Carrick had Leafs fans managing their expectations; surely a team couldn’t capture the Stanley Cup winning every game 7-6?
Enter Ron Hainsey.
If, on the face of it, it was somewhat of an uninspiring signing, the impact has been quite the opposite. The veteran D-man arrived in Toronto on July 1, signing a two-year, $6million contract after a brief stint with the back-to-back champions Pittsburgh Penguins.
The 15-year NHL veteran was actually drafted in the year 2000 by the Montreal Canadiens, and since then has had spells in Columbus, Atalanta, Winnipeg and Carolina before making his way to the steel city, where he finally got some hard-earned silverware for over 900 NHL games, despite only playing 16 games with the Pens.
If his acquisition was viewed indifferently by the Leafs fan-base, it was treated as anything but that inside the locker room.
“When we added him to our team, the players didn’t treat it as a small signing because we all knew how good he was and how good he is,” Morgan Rielly told the Good Show earlier in the month.
“When we would play Carolina in years past and played Pittsburgh, he was a guy we talked about prior to the game in being very strong defensively and being a key part to their defense and so when we got him we knew what we were getting.
“I know your average hockey fan might not look at it that way but we knew how good he was and I was looking forward to playing with him.”
In all honesty, Morgan Rielly might be the man who has to thank Hainsey the most after 21 games under Mike Babcock. Coming off what could be considered a down year, Rielly badly needed to find some consistency and to find some kind of comfort zone.
“I think we have a good relationship,” Rielly continued. “We’ve gotten to know one another off the ice [and] gotten really comfortable playing together. It’s been working well but we’ve got a long way to go.”
With Hainsey being a right-sided player, that allowed Rielly to take up his preferred left side on the top pairing. This has had a noticeable impact on the 23-year-old, who just looks so much more comfortable in games; like a man who has rediscovered his purpose and is thriving with confidence as a result.
Rielly is third in the team for total points, with three goals and 14 assists (a team high) in what has been a blistering start to the season. To put that in perspective, he is on course to sail past his career-high for points in a season, set in 2015-16 when he managed 36 points in 82 games played.
Back to Ron Hainsey though: just why has he been such a golden acquisition for the Leafs? For starters, it is obvious that his experience and veteran presence has had a huge impact when paired alongside a young guy who needed to rediscover his mojo. Having been signed as the replacement for Matt Hunwick (who coincidentally joined the Pens in the offseason), it is clear to see that the 36-year-old is maturing like a fine wine.
It is worth noting that Hainsey’s time-on-ice so far during the 2017/18 season sits at 21:52 per game, with his career average at 21:09 – a small increase but certainly not enough to lend to the argument that a vast rice in ice time has helped transform both his play and the Leafs’.
Hainsey has a career plus/minus of -67; that compared to +6 so far during his time in Toronto. My personal theory is that he has been surrounded by a partner and assisted by a group of forwards that allow him to simply focus on his game.
After a spell in Winnipeg where he was perhaps viewed as the weak link in their D-line, Hainsey has refined his game and gone back to doing the basics right. He appears to have removed the silly turnovers from his game, and his awareness seems to be increasing by the minute.
I saw a Leafs fan sum up Hainsey’s time in Toronto so far pretty well: “When you hear his name during a broadcast it’s never for anything bad, unlike a few others.” And that is very accurate; the Connecticut-Born former Hamilton Bulldog has just four penalty minutes so far in 22 games. Only three Leafs players have less penalty minutes with over 20 games played.
Discipline has been key, and for a man who waited 907 games, six teams, and 14 seasons to even taste the playoffs, it would be easy to get frustrated. While GM Lou Lamoriello may have put his chips on the table to acquire Travis Hamonic from the Islanders (only to be outbid by Calgary), hindsight shows it may have been a blessing in disguise.
When a team is known for a blistering offense, it is easy to overlook what is going on at the other end. More of the same from Ron Hainsey should ensure he and the Leafs get the credit they deserve moving forward.