Over the past week LeafsHub.com has been running polls to find out who fans see as our #6,#7, and #8 defenseman on the depth chart. To no surprise, Travis Dermott won the six spot in a landslide. While the fans choice doesn’t always necessarily equate to management’s, in this instance our results coupled with comments from the organization I feel it’s safe to say we are all on the same page with Dermott. But as is the case quite often in hockey and life, answers lead to more questions.
As it stands today, Toronto will most likely deploy a six man unit on defense of returnees Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, Nikita Zaitsev, probably Connor Carrick who was essentially a rookie, Travis Dermott as mentioned who will be this year’s freshman, and free agent addition and veteran Ron Hainsey. And it’s his name who intrigues me as the more I configure the most sensible pairings in my mind the more I ask myself “Who gets Hainsey?”.
The 13th pick overall of the Montreal Canadiens in the 2000 entry draft, Hainsey has enjoyed a long and successful career as a bit of a journeyman. We can use successful with exuberance thanks to not only his longevity but also in relation to his hoisting of Lord Stanley this June in his first go at playoff action after 907 regular season games. A run of futility that had been unmatched among current NHLer’s. That title and the stigma which went along with it was forcibly removed by his time in Pittsburgh as Hainsey left no debate when it came to his worth, earning his engraving averaging over 21 minutes a night during the post season before becoming a UFA this summer. Toronto had a well documented need on the back end and were active in the market (and may still be via trade) signing the 36 year old blueliner to a two year $6 million dollar contract. At three bills per it raised a few eyebrows somewhat, though nothing extraordinary for the big smoky setting.
After swapping squads with Matt Hunwick (signed a three year deal with the Penguins) and the injury to the unsigned Roman Polak the Maple Leafs had holes to fill and called on Hainsey. But what I’m trying to figure out here today is where and how exactly does Hainsey fit and which hole is he actually going to be filling? The answers could surprise you.
Instantly the first thing you look at in assigning his designated slot is his shot, as in which side is he going to play. Hainsey shoots left, however that means almost nothing when writing him down on the game sheet other than maybe Babcock preferring guys on their strong side although not tied to the philosophy. Hainsey has no problem playing wherever you put him. So what does his recent history say that may tip us off?
In Carolina last season of his 1200+ minutes of ice Hainsey played more than half on the left side w/ Justin Faulk. After his move to Pittsburgh at the deadline Hainsey prior to the post season and then some beyond played almost exclusively on the right side of left defenseman Brian Dumoulin (who just cashed in on a nice deal for himself I might add). What does that tell me? It tells me Hainsey is versatile, but that’s not all.
We talked about the vacancy left with the “Hunlak” departure and we talked about Travis Dermott in the 6 hole, paving the way for Hainsey to naturally slip into the bottom pairing with the rookie defenseman and help show him the way. There’s only one glaring problem with that. Well it’s not really a problem, it’s just Ron Hainsey isn’t a bottom pair defenseman. He’s a top 4 defender. Why do I say that? Because that’s what he’s been, without a doubt.
Is that to say a partnership with Dermott wouldn’t make a great deal of sense? No, it most certainly would. The issue is Ron Hainsey can and does carry more mail than a typical #5 defenseman. In 72 regular season games last year he played under 20 minutes 11 times. Of those 11 he was under 18 minutes three times. Once in a game he left with injury and twice in October. During his 25 playoff games Hainsey was under 18 minutes twice, leading the Pens in AVG ice time for defenseman in the playoffs, quite often on the top pair. Also as documented in a recent story on Hainsey is the player is among the top defenseman in even strength TOI over the past several seasons, which was a little shocking. And look at those names of Faulk and Dumoulin. Hainsey isn’t hiding on any sheltered pair, he’s consistently right in the heart of the tough minutes. We haven’t even begun to discuss his usage on the penalty kill, in all likelihood his greatest attribute. Now there’s two sides to every coin so before we get carried away here I will pull the reins a bit.
In his time with Faulk the pairing did get crushed in GA/60 but away from Faulk he faired much better. Again, leading to more questions and not knowing what to make of it all after studying his WOWY’s (basically his #’s with or without certain teammates) and his other underlying stats, I did what anyone should do when trying to get a read on a player they aren’t extremely familiar with and I asked someone I trust.
Doug Abrams (@dabrams2021) is a Canes super fan and as knowledgeable about the game from all aspects as anyone I’ve met online, and a friend. He understands all the metrics and more than anything he just comprehends the game. His assessment was simple. You’re going to like him, he does a lot of the work you need done and does it well, but he can’t be overwhelmed. Hainsey isn’t a match up stud or necessarily a top flight Dman. But you’ll get an honest effective game with proper usage. I quote
“If Hainsey gets matched up versus the elite scorers for too many shifts, it is not ideal; other than that, you’ll like what he brings. As long as Hainsey is properly matched up with linemates & not given assignments against the Crosbys, McDavids, he’s fine.”
What will that usage look like in Toronto?
Everything I’ve read, the numbers, the playoff and career viewings, Doug’s report, its leading me to this conclusion. Ron Hainsey is a top 4 defenseman, but just. Lou Lamoriello stated Hainsey would be in the top 4 to begin the year and I’m starting to believe him. Now Abrams believes Hainsey is best served on a 3rd pairing and a prominent PK role. With this in mind are the Leafs still looking to upgrade on the blueline? I would say absolutely. If that’s the case then you can look at a Carrick pairing or an ideal match with Dermott. But as it sits today Hainsey is penciled in with either Rielly, Gardiner, or Zaitsev. As he should currently be. So who in fact gets him and why?
Rielly and Zaitsev carried a heavy load last year, almost too heavy, facing top lines night after night. The pair tread water and survived but I’m not convinced that’s the best set up going forward. Rielly battled injury and Zaitsev was steady but it was a big ask of the duo. Then towards the end of the year Gardiner began to see time with Zaitsev and they became an interesting pairing as well. With Hainsey’s ability to play either side it really opens up options for coach Babcock and D.J. Smith. Gardiner could use a steady defender like Hainsey to hold down the fort, no question. Maybe we see 44/51 spend time together while Hainsey and Z eat some hard work and Dzone starts. But for me I think, barring trade, you’ll see a pairing of Rielly and Hainsey out of the gate. Don’t play the shit out of him but that nice 21-22 minute cushion looks like the comfort zone, really for all the top 4. Roll ’em. Penalty kill, he’s first over the boards every time. PP he won’t step over them at all.
Was Hainsey a flashy signing? Maybe not. But I’m leaning toward it being a much more savvy move than most of us realized.
Ron Hainsey isn’t going to be the most popular among a certain fan demographic, just brace for that. He’s not getting anyone out of their seat. It’s 2017 and the new age defenseman is all about zone exits and entries and “moving the puck”, I know this. Keeping that in mind hockey is still hockey and defending your goal and winning battles is still as important as ever and it won’t change. Toronto lost some of that this off season whether people want to accept it or not, and Hainsey brings it in spades. Before this starts to sound like I’m getting ready to give you all the veteran presence and character speech I’ll stop right here and re-route.
I would imagine all angles were considered prior to the signing but to me this wasn’t done to improve the room or for added presence, per se. I view this as a pure hockey move, and a cerebral one at that. For $3 million dollars the Leafs added a proven top 4, yes top 4, defenseman who can slide up, down, right or left in your lineup and do it effectively. This wasn’t let’s go get another leader, that’s just gravy. The more I looked into Hainsey myself the more I felt this was a heavily researched signing very much driven by not only the curse word intangibles but underlying numbers and facts as well. Not to mention the guy just won a cup and played damn well in key situations.
Who gets Ron Hainsey? I guess we’ll have to wait and see. One thing we do know is the Maple Leafs got him and that’s likely better news than we know.