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Top Shelf: Hainsey proving his worth in Atlanta

Ron Hainsey of the Atlanta Thrashers has three goals and 12 points and is a minus-3 this season. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Ron Hainsey of the Atlanta Thrashers has three goals and 12 points and is a minus-3 this season. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/NHLI via Getty Images)

Ron Hainsey has consistently made good decisions on the Atlanta Thrashers blueline this year and his head isn’t any less level once the helmet comes off.

Hainsey signed a five-year deal worth $4.5 million annually last July to jump from the Columbus Blue Jackets to Atlanta. When guys who have 85 points in 245 career games sign a pact of that nature, eyebrows tend to arch.

But Hainsey didn’t lose any sleep this summer about turning himself into some freakish Rod Langway-Bobby Orr fusion in an effort to prove he’s worth all the pennies. The 27-year-old recognizes a futile battle when he sees one.

“The reality is, is anyone ever going to believe when you sign for that much money that you’re worth it?” Hainsey said. “That’s just part of the deal in pro sports.

“You want to come in and play well, obviously, I think it’s important not to try to do stuff you’re not really capable of by trying to do too much. It’s definitely a situation where you want to come in and win over your teammates, win over the fans, and the coaching staff and try to make the people who brought you in look as good as you can.”

So far, that’s exactly what the smooth-skating Connecticut native has done. While Thrashers GM Don Waddell is probably tempted to say, “I told you so” when discussing Hainsey’s signing; the truth is a healthy number of teams were interested in the defenseman’s services despite underwhelming career totals.

Hainsey, true to his nature, simply made the right choice.

“You never know for sure in the summer, but from what I knew about (new coach John Anderson) before and reading about what he planned to do, I thought it would be a good fit and for my style of game it has been so far,” he said.

It sure has. Hainsey has spent the season paired with defense-minded Garnet Exelby, which has allowed him to focus on moving the puck up ice and creating offense. To that end, Hainsey has posted a respectable three goals and 12 points through 20 games. After seasons of 34 and 32 points in Columbus the past two years, a 50-point campaign is in range for Year 1 in Atlanta.

That type of production is more in line with what the Montreal Canadiens projected for Hainsey when they drafted him 13th overall in 2000. But things didn’t immediately materialize for Hainsey with the Habs and he found himself on re-entry waivers when the Canadiens tried to call him up from the American League just two months into the first post-lockout season.

Columbus quickly snapped him up and he spent the next two-plus seasons skating in Ohio, establishing himself as an NHLer.

“That was a great opportunity,” Hainsey said. “(Former Jackets GM) Doug MacLean brought me in, gave me a chance to play a lot of minutes right away and obviously with (coach Ken Hitchcock) taking over, I think I was able to play well enough to earn his trust and continue to get more and more minutes and that experience helped me get to a higher level than I was at before.”

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The end result is something Anderson has enjoyed watching during his first year behind the Thrashers bench.

“He’s a tremendous puck-mover, great skater and you know he’s been a real big influence in our room,” Anderson said. “He’s a vocal guy, he wants to win and he’s been a settling factor in our room.”

The knock on Hainsey is that he isn’t enough of a hell-raiser. When a defenseman only has two penalty minutes all year, that’s an easy conclusion to arrive at. While it’s true Hainsey is by no means an intimidator, his ability to avoid the penalty box speaks more to great body position and speed than a lack of aggression.

Besides, as Anderson points out, “He’s one of our best defensemen and we don’t want him sitting in the box.”

Hainsey is well-positioned as a newcomer in the Atlanta dressing room, too.

“He doesn’t take himself or the game too seriously, but still is focused when he needs to be,” said Exelby, himself a noted jokester amongst his teammates. “It’s definitely enjoyable to have him around, I’m glad we had a chance to sign him this summer.”

While Hainsey is locked into the Thrashers for the next few years, that doesn’t mean there isn’t another jersey he’d be interested in wearing. Team USA is presumably on the lookout for guys who skate and move the puck well for its 2010 Olympic entry, especially given the fast-paced nature of the tournament.

“Obviously it’s something most guys are aware of if you think maybe you can possibly earn a spot,” Hainsey said. “We’ll see how things are shaping up at the end of the year, it’s kind of a back-burner thing, but something you’re aware of as well.”

Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesdays and his column, Top Shelf, appears Fridays.

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