|At 29, Ron Hainsey (Bolton, Conn.) is one of the Thrashers' elder statesmen.|
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the February 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal.
Since their inaugural campaign back in 1999-00, the Atlanta Thrashers have qualified for the postseason just once, bowing out in the first round after being swept by the Rangers in 2007.
Defenseman Ron Hainsey (Bolton, Conn.) has been on the outside of the playoffs looking in during his first two years in Atlanta, but he sees that changing in Year 3 with a new coach and an abundance of young, talented players.
“We’re playing a pretty good team game,” Hainsey said of the Thrashers. “We’ve got a lot of young guys that are starting to play the right way. We’re seeing some good results. We’re gonna be in a fight here with some good teams all the way in during this playoff race. If we play how we have been most of the way, we should be in good shape.”
Despite being just 29, Hainsey is the fifth-oldest player on the roster and the second-oldest among the eight blueliners who have skated with the team this season.
“It’s becoming more and more that way across the league,” Hainsey said. “Since the lockout, I don’t know what the numbers are, but it seems like it’s becoming a younger and faster league since the rule tweaks and the changes. There’s a lot of younger players playing in big roles.”
Things certainly weren’t that way when the former UMass-Lowell standout broke into the league during the 2002-03 season with the Canadiens.
“My first year in Montreal, there was Doug Gilmour, Randy Mckay, Joe Juneau, Stephane Quintal, Patrice Brisebois, Andreas Dackel, these guys were all around 33 and older, and now there’s very few guys (that age) on this team,” Hainsey said. “It’s just kind of been the evolution of the game over the last decade.”
With two offensive dynamos on the back end in Dustin Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom, Hainsey’s role has changed a bit since his first season in Atlanta, one in which he recorded a career-high 39 points.
“Those guys, last I knew, they were No. 1 and No. 3 in points for defensemen,” he said of his two fellow blueliners, noting they should both warrant heavy consideration for the Norris Trophy at season’s end.
“They’ve earned the ice time they’re getting. They’re out there playing 25 to 30 minutes a night and doing a helluva job for us. If we have two guys playing like that, the other four guys in the group are gonna have to pick it up in other areas because those guys have produced so well for us offensively.”
With Craig Ramsay — an assistant coach on Claude Julien’s staff for the past three seasons in Boston — now calling the shots behind the bench, Hainsey has noticed a dramatic change in Atlanta after two years under coach John Anderson.
“He’s been great,” Hainsey said of Ramsay. “From Day One, he’s been really honest about playing the right way and playing within the system. He’s been great at talking to the players and communicating what they’re doing right and what they’re doing wrong. We probably watched video on our off-days the first couple months of the season nonstop.
“It’s changed the whole way we do things here, the whole coaching staff, not just him. John Torchetti (Boston, Mass.), Mike Stothers and Clint Malarchuk, those guys have been great, too. We’re a more consistent team, and we’re playing the way we want to play. If we do that, we’ll be in good shape.”
Hainsey believes this current edition of the Thrashers has what it takes to make it to the postseason. They just have to stick to Ramsay’s game plan on a nightly basis.
“If we stay consistent with 20 guys the way we draw it up before the game, we’ll be fine,” the 6-foot-3 blueliner said. “We’ll win our share of games and get ourselves into the playoffs. Everybody is so close, so once you get into the playoffs, everybody has a shot.”
Simply getting there will be a tremendous experience for the Thrashers’ young, emerging stars, according to Hainsey.
“It’s gonna be huge,” he said. “You’ve got to get in there and see what it’s all about because the intensity level is going to pick up.
“When you play the whole season, 82 games, and that’s it … it’s a pretty unrewarding experience. It’s just kind of over. You put all that work in and you get nothing out of it.”
Unfortunately, that’s how the first seven NHL seasons have gone for Hainsey, who now has more than 450 regular-season games under his belt among his stops in Montreal, Columbus and now Atlanta but zero playoff experience.
With his 30th birthday looming in March, Hainsey is as optimistic as he’s ever been that he and the Thrashers will have plenty more hockey to look forward to after Game No. 82 this season.
“My very first year, I was with Montreal and I didn’t get to play (in the playoffs),” Hainsey said. “I just got to be a spectator and they lost in the second round to Carolina. Since then, I’ve obviously played in some American League series and I went to the finals in the AHL one year. It’s been awhile for me personally, and it’s definitely something that I’m looking forward to.”
After ranking among the league leaders in points by a defenseman, Ryan Whitney’s (Scituate, Mass.) stellar start in his first full season in Edmonton came to an abrupt end.
The former Boston University star — who was leading the Oilers with 27 points in his first 35 games — suffered an injury to his right ankle in late December.
Whitney underwent surgery last month to repair the ankle, which reportedly could see him return for just a handful of games at best at the tail end of the regular season.
“You finally feel good about yourself as a player and you’re starting to really gain momentum for the next part of my career, and then this happens,” Whitney said. “It’s obviously frustrating.”
In its first 11 games without Whitney, Edmonton went just 2-8-1, sinking to 30th overall in the NHL with just 35 points in its first 46 games.
With a cap hit in excess of $7 million, Rangers captain Chris Drury has hardly given his team enough bang for the buck in his fourth season in the Big Apple. The Trumbull, Conn., native had no goals and just four assists through his first 19 games, having battled multiple hand injuries early on in the season.
Coach John Tortorella (Melrose, Mass.) has moved his team’s captain down to the fourth line but will still rely on Drury for critical defensive situations and big faceoffs.
“That’s exactly the role ‘Dru’ is going to play for us, out there in certain key situations that can determine the outcome,” Tortorella said. “That’s the role he’s going to have to embrace.”
Drury, 34, is signed through the 2011-12 season.
Pacioretty rebounds quickly
Parked in front of Ryan Miller’s net during a game against the Sabres, Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty(New Canaan, Conn.) bore the brunt of a blistering slap shot from teammate James Wisniewski. Pacioretty left the ice on a stretcher and went via ambulance to a local hospital.
Just three days later, Pacioretty was back in the lineup, not missing a single game.
The 22-year-old winger scored that night in a 7-1 win over the Ducks, then added two more goals in a 4-3 overtime loss the following night against Anaheim, which included the tying goal with 12 seconds left in regulation.
Jesse Connolly can be reached at email@example.com