Morgan Rielly’s new defence partner is a much different player than his partner from last season.
I don’t know if Ron Hainsey is significantly better or worse than Nikita Zaitsev, but they’re certainly different players stylistically. Zaitsev is a 25-year-old RHD who just finished his first NHL season in which he played almost all of his 5v5 minutes with Rielly. Hainsey is a 36-year-old LHD (but has been and will be used on the right side) who has played over 900 NHL games. Zaitsev leans on his skating ability to drive offence while being rather passive defensively. Hainsey leans on his solid defensive game to lift up his non-existant offensive abilities. Zaitsev has a brand new seven year contract with an AAV worth $4.5 million. Hainsey has a brand new two year deal carrying an AAV of $3 million. Ultimately, though, Hainsey seems to have been brought in to take Zaitsev’s place as Rielly’s right hand man. I don’t mean that Hainsey is assumed better than Zaitsev, I just mean it seems as though Hainsey is going to be regularly playing with Rielly next year.
Hainsey operated at a -1.92 relative shot differential last season playing on the right side against pretty stiff competition while splitting time between the Carolina Hurricanes and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Zaitsev posted a -1.58 relative shot differential while facing even stiffer competition in his rookie year, but playing on his natural side.
So, both defenders weren’t exactly built for the roles they were deployed in, but neither player was totally caved in either. My initial thought is that Mike Babcock would likely be best served to split up some of the tough minutes between Rielly-Hainsey and Gardiner-Zaitsev, assuming that will be the top four. Then again, I thought that would be for the best last season when the top four was Rielly-Zaitsev and Gardiner-Carrick, but maybe now it’s more likely to happen.
Now, although these defenders ultimately have similar results, the way in which they arrive at these outcomes are substantially different. Taking a quick glance at @DTMAboutHeart’s GAR data, Hainsey and Zaitsev come in at 5.8 and 5.6 GAR respectively. Remember that GAR is not a rate statistic, but rather a cumulative statistic and Zaitsev played more total minutes, so they come out nearly identical in GAR/60. Again, though, the aspects of the game each player rates well at completely contrasts the other. At even-strength, Zaitsev leans heavily on his offence to lift his replacement level defence, while Hainsey leans heavily on his defensive game.
I was moderately surprised when I found out that Hainsey doesn’t take many penalties. In fact, Hainsey hasn’t had 50 PIMs in a season in a decade. This is good. What’s even more surprising is the contrast in zone entry breakup/exit abilities. Intuitively, I had assumed Zaitsev would be significantly better than Hainsey at exiting the zone with possession and Hainsey would be significantly better at preventing zone entries, but, as it turns out, Hainsey was much superior in both departments last season.
Zaitsev was really bad in this department, which is concerning since these two assets are arguably the most important thing a defender can do well: keep the puck out of his zone and get the puck out efficiently when it does get in their zone. Hainsey shows extremely well in terms of preventing controlled zone entries against (best on the Hurricanes, in fact) but he also ranks above average in exiting the zone with possession. Zaitsev ranked well below average in both of these categories, but I think he was extremely quick to hand off the heavy lifting to Rielly whenever he could. Based solely on my biased eye-test, it seemed like Zaitsev was always being extra conservative last year. He looks like he has more to give and maybe a change of defence partners will give him the confidence to spread his wings a little bit. The problem is that he was well below average in both categories, so he has a lot of ground to make up and he’s 25, so it’s not probable that he improves significantly.
I’m also interested to see how much better Gardiner looks with Zaitsev over Connor Carrick because I’m of the opinion that Carrick is as good as or better than Zaitsev. Of course, all it would take for that experiment to be irrelevant is Babcock giving Gardiner-Zaitsev a share of the tough minutes because Gardiner-Carrick were pretty sheltered last year.
There is one more thing I should look into here, though, since Hainsey’s contract is more or less replacing Matt Hunwick’s. Hunwick is four years younger than Hainsey and he just signed a three year deal with a $2.5 million AAV with the Penguins, so basically the Leafs gave up $500,000 for the first two years, but the Penguins have to keep Hunwick an year extra.
If you’ll look at the graphic above, which details zone entry and exit data, Hunwick was very good at preventing zone entries against, but he was totally inept at getting the puck out of his own zone. Hunwick also ranked significantly lower in GAR (2.5) than Hainsey or Zaitsev, in which his defence took a big hit. Roman Polak was probably a big part of that, as I still think Hunwick is a decent bottom pairing defender, but he’s not a big loss. I mean, look at his QoC relative to Hainsey.
The moral of the story is that, while I was skeptical at the time of the signing, I just might like the Ron Hainsey signing.
*QoC/QoT charts via hockeyviz.com, zone exit/prevention viz via Sean Tierney’s (@ChartingHockey) tableau, data via Corey Sznajder’s (@ShutdownLine) https://theenergyline.wordpress.com
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