Aside from his dad-like attitude on this team and in post-game interviews, defenceman Ron Hainsey was able to contribute something to last year’s Maple Leafs team that they might be struggling to do all next season.
The 38-year-old 16-year NHL veteran was essentially shoved out the door as soon as he was able to leave for unrestricted free agency. A process that he has already been through multiple times before, but before he was heading to Ottawa on a one-year, $3.5-million deal, Hainsey provided the Leafs with something very important the last couple of seasons.
It could be said that his leadership, and all that intangible attributes that your uncle loves to bring up whenever you try to talk about William Nylander, helped the Leafs go from a rebuilding team trying to find their space in the NHL landscape to a team that is generally feared for its high-powered offence.
An offence that played a major role in bringing the Leafs to where they are today. Highly-touted prospects drafted in the top-10 and the best free agent to hit the open market in the modern identity of this sport — they all contributed to getting this team to the postseason.
But what ran a large portion of that offence was the group of defencemen behind those forwards on the ice. Moving the puck up with speed or setting records for most attempted breakout passes that stretched the ice, the likes of Jake Gardiner, Morgan Rielly and Travis Dermott were those capable of doing that.
Through it all, who they were partnered up with went under consideration and was a heated topic among groups of fans.
Through all he scrutiny he faced for being on the top pairing with Rielly, Hainsey had a job to do and he did it extremely well. It might have been the only one of his jobs he did that led to more success for Toronto, but he did it nevertheless.
Hainsey essentially patrolled the blue line while Rielly was up in the play and he did it extremely well. Clearly the second-best Leafs defenceman at defending their own zone and not letting opposing skaters simply waltz right into a scoring chance, Hainsey’s ability to deny the competition will be greatly missed.
Above-average in both categories, Hainsey was truly a shutdown defenceman — as painful those words are in the modern all-offence era of the NHL. What he lacked in mobility, he made up for in his ability to kill any notion of opposing offence.
He of course had his own blunders. Getting turnstiled at the line, whiffing on a loose puck, and other general mishaps, but just like any player, you have to judge the production for the big picture and whether or not they were worth the ice-time.
Babcock clearly saw this in Hainsey. Through all the Twitter-screaming fans did, he kept that line together and although some underlying numbers don’t look the best (49.57 CF% at 5v5), they were able to keep the offence rolling and not completely drown in goals against.
Speaking of drowning in goals, Cody Ceci is now a Toronto Maple Leaf. It’s been rumoured and through general consensus future lineups for the Leafs, Rielly will most likely be paired up with Ceci.
While Hainsey was able to control the blue line, Ceci did the exact opposite and let forwards walk right over him for a scoring chance.
Looking at the two general numbers that portrays a player’s zone entry defence — carry-in against percentage and passing plays allowed percentage — the former and future partners or Rielly are on complete different ends of the spectrum.
Hainsey had a carry-in against percentage of 53, much lower than the 63.7 per cent league-average for a defenceman last year. He was also above-average in the amount of passing plays he allowed crossing the blue line, only 15 per cent while the league-average was 22.8 per cent.
It might have been a factor of being on that trash Ottawa Senators team, but Ceci provided his fair share to that heaping pile of hot garbage. He allowed opposing forwards to carry the puck into the zone 78 per cent of the time and allowed a passing play to enter the zone 33 per cent of the time.
If he keeps up this rate of production, Rielly’s offence will stifle and the Leafs will miss that extra punch of power going forward. But players change year-to-year and under a structured coach like Babcock, Ceci might just improve to being a league-average defenceman when it comes to allowing zone entries.
That’s unlikely but we can all hope.
There is of course the option of pairing Travis Dermott with Rielly — as his numbers were in the top-tier among all defenceman in the league last year. But as we all know with the current coaching staff, it might take a while to make those changes, especially considering Dermott’s absence at the beginning of next season.
All in all, we might discover in the middle of next season that Hainsey provided something that most Leafs defencemen couldn’t do last year. He had his job and he did it well.