Toronto Maple Leafs: Ron Hainsey with Morgan Rielly is a smart temporary option

NASHVILLE, TN - JUNE 11: Ron Hainsey
NASHVILLE, TN - JUNE 11: Ron Hainsey /

The Toronto Maple Leafs will have a new look to their blueline this season and according to Mike Babcock, Morgan Rielly will be getting a new defensive partner.

Ever since he made his debut with the Toronto Maple Leafs back in the 2013-14 season, Morgan Rielly has not had the luxury of a stable defensive partner. It is something Mike Babcock has been trying to figure out since coming to Toronto and now Ron Hainsey will be tasked with that role when training camp opens next month.

After Matt Hunwick signed a three-year contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Hainsey was brought in on a two-year deal, a move that was met with some criticism. Considering the team’s lack of depth on the right side and the 36-year olds’ experience with playing on his opposite side that is probably a reason why Babcock will experiment with a Rielly-Hainsey pairing. Whether it stays that way is another question but Babcock has probably put a lot of thought into this decision, especially if he is making it well before the players hit the ice.

Last season Rielly was paired with Nikita Zaitsev for 53.25% per-cent of the time at even strength, second was Connor Carrick at 11.21% and then a mix of Roman Polak, Matt Hunwick, Alexei Marchenko and Martin Marincin. While Hainsey will only be here for the next two years, it could give the Leafs time to develop someone to eventually take his role of being Rielly’s partner.

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Although Hainsey does not possess elite possession numbers, his skating makes him a better candidate to play on the right side than a player like Polak who is coming off a major leg injury. It also puts less pressure on the Leafs to have Travis Dermott, Calle Rosen or Andreas Borgman play the right side. Hainsey was also an important part of the Penguins blueline that had to overcome many injuries before winning a Stanley Cup.

Back when the Leafs signed Hainsey, Dom Luszczyszyn provided this analysis on whether he could handle tough minutes on a consistent basis. 

"He should alleviate some of the pressure off the team’s top three defenders and give the team some much needed balance in their top four. If his acquisition frees up Rielly and Zaitsev then it just might be worth it. There shouldn’t be a pressing need to hard-match one pairing every night as the team should now have two pairs that can shoulder the burden, or at the very least, two pairs the coach trusts to do so."

James Mirtle from the Athletic also looked at how Hainsey would be an upgrade over Hunwick based on the fact that the Leafs sheltered Hunwick’s minutes with easier matchups. He has played more in a top-four role than Hunwick and despite the age difference, he has been a more effective defensive defenceman. Mirtle also sugggested a nice comparable for the 36-year old.

"In seven of the last eight years, Hainsey has played an above average load against tough competition players. Hunwick has only done it twice, including in 2015-16, when he spent 50 per cent of his ice time facing stars and the Leafs finished dead last in the NHL.Hainsey has played as much or more as defencemen like Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Zdeno Chara, Mark Giordano and Victor Hedman at even strength. Hunwick’s comparables for minutes are Luca Sbisa, Matt Bartkowski and Kevan Miller."

What this will do for the Leafs is afford them two options when it comes to matchijg up against the tough competition. It will help Zaitsev too because he will not be asked to go against the opposing team’s top players on a regular basis. This also means that Marchenko and Marincin will have a tougher time making the roster.

Mirtle also noted that this buys the Leafs time to search for an upgrade in their top four. Hainsey pointed out in his introductory conference call that, Babcock runs a similar defensive system to the one he played under with BIll Peters in Carolina. It also does not hurt to have a veteran presence on the blueline.

Next: Statistical comparisons with the Pittsburgh Penguins

So before people start complaining about an older player playing a prominent role on a hockey team especially one like the Leafs with all they young talent they have. That player should get a chance to show what he can or cannot do, something Babcock believes he will be capable of doing.