It’s no secret that defense is the No. 1 priority for coach Ken Hitchcock’s Columbus Blue Jackets club.
So it wasn’t exactly point production the Blue Jackets were seeking when they acquired Ron Hainsey from the Montreal Canadiens in 2005.
Move ahead two seasons and Hainsey has emerged as an offensive force in Hitchcock’s methodical defensive system. He ranks third on the team in power-play goals and has been among the top five in points for Columbus this season.
“Being on the power play a lot, the points are going to come,” says Hainsey. “The opportunity on the power play you have to earn. It’s up to the guys that are out there to get the job done, or you won’t be on it very long.”
The U.S. NTDP alum has come a long way since being selected No. 13 overall by the Canadiens in 2000. He spent four seasons in the Montreal organization, which included “a lot of back and forth” time with the team’s American Hockey League affiliate in Quebec.
“I tried to do whatever I could to stay there,” Hainsey recalls. “It was tough, but you’ve got to just keep working.”
The hard work eventually paid off as he landed a job in Columbus. He played in all but two games with the Blue Jackets in 2006-07 — his first full season in the NHL — and finished with 34 points.
But the coaching staff didn’t relent on the former first-rounder. They wanted him to have a productive offseason and return to camp as one of the top five on the team in conditioning.
“The coaches were on me about it at the end of last season,” says Hainsey. “They said this was something that was going to be very important, and they weren’t going to be satisfied — and that I shouldn’t be satisfied — without making vast improvements.
“I tried to do whatever I could to stay there. ... You’ve got to just keep working.”
“A lot of the focus for me was on training and getting into more elite shape than just good shape and being able to handle more minutes,” he says, “and using that to my advantage, as far as closing in quicker on people in the defensive zone and getting up the ice faster.”
Hainsey’s point production from the blue line hasn’t been the only upside to his game. He’s averaging more than 20 minutes of ice per game and his plus/minus rating has climbed nearly 20 points. Not to mention a considerable drop-off in penalty minutes compared to last season.
Still, not many in Columbus’ defense-first system are bewildered that one from its own defensive fold would be a lasting presence in the top five on the Blue Jackets in points.
“We knew that Ron had a good offensive side to his game,” says Columbus assistant coach and former NHL defenseman Gord Murphy. “He’s a guy that’s had a lot of power-play time and played a lot of five-on-five and four-on-four. He came out of the gate strong and got some points early. To say it’s a surprise, I don’t think so.”
As a regular contributor on the score sheet along with his ability to play in various situations, Hainsey could potentially be a nice fit for Team USA in 2010.
Although his focus now is to continue playing at a consistent level in Columbus, Hainsey admits that “it would be a great accomplishment and even greater honor” to represent Team USA in the Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
“We’ve got a lot of American-born players now in the league and a lot of American-born defensemen playing well,” he says. “We’ll see where it’s at in the next couple of seasons.”
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