Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Ron Hainsey at the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup final. (Getty)
Ron Hainsey played 907 NHL regular season games before finally making the playoffs. But the 36-year-old defenseman is making up for lost time, stepping up for the blueline-battered Pittsburgh Penguins as they go for NHL glory.
PITTSBURGH – Every other year of his NHL career, Ron Hainsey would have spent his Memorial Day weekend on the golf course and playing with his kids. “Those are pretty much my only two activities at this point,” he said.
One thing he wasn’t doing was playing hockey. And he wouldn’t have been this spring, either, had Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford not picked him up at the trade deadline from the Carolina Hurricanes for prospect Danny Kristo and a second-round draft pick. At the time, it was viewed as a depth move, but that was before Penguins defensemen started dropping like flies. Not only has Hainsey played in every playoff game for the Penguins, he’s second on the team in average ice time behind defense partner Brian Dumoulin.
Hainsey isn’t used to all this work at this time of year. After the regular season ended this year, Hainsey had played in a total of 907 NHL games. Not one of them was a playoff game. Not a single one. He was a first-round pick of the Montreal Canadiens in 2000, but those were lean years for the Habs. Two of the three years he was in the organization they made the playoffs, but he was in the minors. Then he moved on to a laundry list of bad teams, first the Columbus Blue Jackets, followed by the Atlanta Thrashers/Winnipeg Jets and then the Hurricanes. Every year when they totaled up all the points, Hainsey found himself on the outside looking in, wondering whether he’d be destined to become a modern-day Guy Charron, who had a 734-game NHL career without ever seeing the post-season. (Poor bugger was Canadiens’ property, but was dealt at the trade deadline in 1971, his first season as an NHLer, as part of the package Montreal used to land Hall of Famer Frank Mahovlich. Coincidentally, Charron was an assistant coach with the Canadiens when Hainsey broke into the league in 2002-03.)
“I didn’t know what to think, to be honest,” Hainsey said. “It wasn’t like I sat around the house beating my head against the wall about it.”
Things started out pretty well for Hainsey. In 2002-03, his second pro season, he helped the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs get to the Calder Cup final before losing Game 7 to the Houston Aeros. Game 2 of that series, which was played 14 years ago yesterday, needed four overtimes before the Bulldogs won 2-1.
Hainsey has never had a playoff beard as an NHL player and this year has afforded him the chance to grow his facial hair for two months. More importantly, the experience could also help the 36-year-old Hainsey gain further employment with the Penguins. Due to become an unrestricted free agent in the off-season, Hainsey could be an affordable option for the Penguins, who have only three defensemen under contract for next season and are facing a cap crunch.
You don’t get the sense Hainsey spent a lot of time fretting over his lack of playoff participation, but it’s clear he’s very appreciative of the opportunity. Rutherford had a familiarity with him from their days with the Hurricanes, and it turned out that the acquisitions of Hainsey and Mark Streit have served the Penguins well. Hainsey has always been a workhorse, averaging more than 21 minutes of ice time over the course of his career, which is bang-on what he has averaged so far in the playoffs (21:08). In a perfect world, Hainsey would be a third-pairing defenseman, with the ability to move up the depth chart in the event of injuries.
There’s a good chance no player will go as many games in his career without playing a playoff game as Hainsey did. The current leader in that category is Buffalo Sabres defenseman Zach Bogosian, who has played 534 games without appearing in the post-season. In order to catch Hainsey, Bogosian would have to play five more seasons without making the playoffs. Jay Bouwmeester went 750 games before playing his first in the playoffs, while Jeff Skinner of the Hurricanes (497), Evander Kane of the Sabres (496) and Taylor Hall of the New Jersey Devils (453) are also starting to get up there.
“You always want to play,” Hainsey said. “The game goes by faster when you’re going right back out there all the time. We’ve actually had some games where we only had five ‘D’ because of injuries. It’s been a lot of fun to play and we have to keep doing that for another couple of weeks.”