The value of Leafs defenceman Ron Hainsey isn’t always found in the numbers

The value of Leafs defenceman Ron Hainsey isn’t always found in the numbers
The veteran is part of a group of elder statesman blueliners currently performing at league-leading levels — he’s one of the best plus-minus players in the NHL this season — but he gives the credit to team play.

Leafs defenceman Ron Hainsey has been Morgan Rielly’s partner for much of the last two seasons.  (Bill Wippert / GETTY IMAGES)

And he feels good about the Leafs’ defensive work the last week, which followed a horrendous four-game stretch where they had allowed 23 goals in four games.

“(I’m) certainly encouraged by the way we played the last week here,” Hainsey said Sunday. “It appears we’re headed to Boston again (for the playoffs) — a big challenge, seven-game series last year — so we have to get ourselves ramped up.”

Hainsey turned 38 Sunday, and there is reason to celebrate. Along with being sixth in the league with a plus-30 rating, he has been a part of the Leafs’ top defensive pairing because of his experience and his ability to communicate and marshal his teammates in the defensive zone.

The pragmatist in Hainsey shrugs his shoulders at the mention of personal stats and goals. But Leafs coach Mike Babcock has praised him ever since Hainsey signed with the Leafs in July, 2017.

Hainsey debuted alongside Morgan Rielly, with Babcock pencilling in that pairing almost exclusively ever since. The coach credits Hainsey for helping with Rielly’s development, taking care of some of the defensive details while his younger partner was expanding his game.

“Unbelievable,” said Babcock, who didn’t have to be reminded that it was Hainsey’s birthday. “I look at his career ... a good player, and still a good player, one of the top plus-minus players in the league ... He’s been real good for us, good in the room, and (it’s) good to have guys who’ve won Cups in your room.”

Hainsey, a father of three, said he hadn’t heard of anything special being planned for his birthday. But the Leafs showed their appreciation, allowing him to lead the on-ice stretch at practice, with every player tapping his stick on the ice.

Two days earlier, the Bruins signed 42-year-old defenceman Zdeno Chara to a one-year extension, bringing him back for his 22nd season. And Saturday, Calgary’s Mark Giordano became just the third defenceman 35 or older to reach the 70-point plateau in a season. Giordano, who is second in plus-minus, is the favourite to win the Norris Trophy.

“Giordano is a tremendous guy,” Hainsey said. “He scratched and clawed all the way, and he’s always trying to do it the right way. A tremendous season for him.”

Hainsey was an offensive defenceman when Montreal drafted him out of UMass-Lowell, 13th overall, in 2000. But his focus changed to his own end of the rink when Columbus picked him up off waivers early in the 2005-06 season. He hasn’t changed much since, although he acknowledges that he’s working on his skating to keep up with the young guns.

“It’s not so much about getting faster or slower, as what everyone else around you is doing,” Hainsey said. “In some respects, you know, there’s a certain level of fleet of foot that you have to keep up with, but there’s a lot that goes on around you that you have to keep up with.”

Hainsey won the Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh in 2017 after being picked up at the trade deadline. That led to a two-year, $6-million deal with the Leafs that ends this spring. His future with the Leafs is a grey area now, given that the club needs cap space to sign several young, cornerstone players this summer.

But he has experience and a quiet willingness to play the game the right way, which is not going out of fashion in the NHL just yet.

“It’s real important when you’re scouting other teams, and then to have someone on your team who knows what he’s doing,” Babcock said. “He didn’t step into the league right away and dominate. He had to earn his way, and there’s life lessons there, and those life lessons get passed on.”
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