Can Ron Hainsey unlock Morgan Rielly’s offence?

Sportsnet’s Shawn McKenzie was in Niagara Falls to speak with Morgan Rielly, Mike Babcock and Ron Hainsey about the Toronto Maple Leafs top defensive pairing.

How Ron Hainsey felt when Sidney Crosby handed him the Stanley Cup on June 11, he finds difficult to articulate.

The Penguins and Predators were fighting tooth-and-nail in a scoreless Game 6 until Patric Hornqvist finally broke the tie with just 95 seconds remaining in regulation, the champs held on, then it’s all champagne and confetti and gap-toothed grins.

The world’s best hockey player lifted the shiniest of prizes and passed it first to 36-year-old bearded man who’d waited 907 games, six teams, and 14 seasons to even taste the playoffs.

“It does turn into a blur. You’re so excited at that moment that… I don’t know. There wasn’t a whole lot going through my head, to be honest,” Hainsey admits.

“You’re in awe of the moment. Happy. Everybody’s around. Pretty awesome.”

Hainsey savoured a quiet morning at home in late August looking at the Stanley Cup with close friends and family, then took it to the Bolton Ice Palace, the small-town Connecticut rink where he learned to skate 33 years ago. He wanted to share the victory with the community that afternoon, and he did so in barn as unflashy and dependable as his game.

Then Hainsey threw what we can only presume was one helluva party. The details of which “will stay between me and the people who were there,” he says, smiling.

Hainsey, who holds the dubious distinction of playing the most regular-season contests before sampling the spring tournament, is now perfect in the playoffs.

He’ll be hoping his recent grasp of good fortune cleared customs this month along with the furniture and family he moved to a new west-end Toronto home near the Maple Leafs’ practice facility.

“Obviously having that playoff run last year is a big one, but he’s played a lot of games in this league. He’s been around a long time,” says Morgan Rielly, Hainsey’s new 23-year-old defence partner.

“We’re lucky to have him. He’s a very good player still—that’s the most important thing. Yeah, he brings experience. Yeah, he brings leadership. But he can still play the game at a very high level.”

Separated by 13 years of age and packing differing skill sets, the Maple Leafs’ new top defensive pair has one trait in common: They both shoot left.

In a perfect Babcockian world, the Leafs would have acquired a top-four right shot this summer to match with Rielly. GM Lou Lamoriello dug deep to land Travis Hamonic from the Islanders only to be outbid by Calgary’s Brad Treliving.

It’s a smart and relatively inexpensive Plan B.

By adding a stay-at-home, hard-nosed penalty killer like Hainsey — a team guy who’s happy to play his off side — we expect Rielly’s offensive game to blossom after scoring just six goals and posting a career-low minus-20 rating in a 2016-17 campaign hampered by an ankle injury and limited in power-play time.

“It’s tough,” Reilly says, twice, when we ask him to describe playing right defence as a left shot.

“When you have the puck on your off side, your forehand is facing south and you want to go north with it. So you have to bring it across your body and you have to open up more. It’s tougher to survey the ice as opposed to when you’re playing the left side and your forehand’s going north and you’re looking up-ice—that’s easier.”

Mike Babcock felt it important to shift Rielly to his natural half of the sheet. So much so, the coach is sacrificing speed for wisdom to his right.

“[Rielly] is gonna play on his forehand side. That’s gonna help him a lot,” Babcock says. “Hainsey’s a smart guy who’s been around a long time. That’s probably gonna free up some room for him that way. He’s just gotta build off his year. I thought last year his injury didn’t help him.”

Critics who question the Leafs’ two-year, $6-million commitment to Hainsey may be ignoring the one year and $750,000 Toronto saved by not re-signing Matt Hunwick, Pittsburgh’s Hainsey replacement.

They may also be unaware that 12 teams reached out to Hainsey the day free agency’s courting period opened and that on the eve of July 1, Hainsey had his choice of three teams willing to offer two-year deals at comparable dollars.

“This was by far the one I wanted to go to of the three,” says the American. “Just for the type of young team it is [and] the chance we have in the next two years to build on what was started last year, which was a heck of a first-round series against Washington, which could have easily carried on further.”

Hainsey vividly recalls how the Leafs picked the Pittsburgh apart in the neutral zone and overcame a third-period deficit to clinch their playoff berth with a win over his Penguins. He studied the Leafs’ systems, how the forwards can fly (both ways), and admired the group’s lack of quit in the Capitals series, knowing his road to the Cup might go through Toronto.

In Hainsey, Rielly sees a veteran he can learn from, a guy who played a key role in shattering the myth that a championship team must be propelled by a healthy Number 1 defenceman.

In Rielly, Hainsey sees a fast player mature beyond his age.

“His hockey smarts and his skating are his strengths,” Hainsey says.

“We’re probably just scratching the surface of the type of player he can turn into here.”

For three weeks now, the pair of first-rounders have been chatting, getting to know each other. First as people. (They both wield a sly wit; Hainsey’s is more sardonic.) Now, gradually, as players — tendencies, positioning, voices — trying to summon chemistry on par with the Leafs’ other top D pairing, Nikita Zaitsev and Jake Gardiner.

“We didn’t think Zaitsev and Rielly were a match made in heaven, for whatever reason,” says Babcock of last fall’s abandoned shutdown D experiment. “We plan on having two pairs that can do it.”

At training camp at Niagara Falls over the weekend, Rielly picked Hainsey’s brain about Pittsburgh’s defence-by-committee Cup run, one balanced with strategic and psychological components.

(Hainsey’s mindset, nut-shelled: “Keep plugging away until they take your skates away.”)

“You learn what it takes,” Rielly says. “He’s going to be a big part of what we do.”

The dream scenario is Hainsey improving the Leafs’ 10th-place penalty kill and acting as security blanket for Rielly’s offensive game, which has yet to hit its zenith. (Think: Paul Martin–Brent Burns or Marc Methot–Erik Karlsson Lite.)

If things click? Well, maybe that championship experience will come in handy down the road.

“It doesn’t hurt,” says the only active Leafs player with a ring.

“We all have to remember: Up until Feb. 23, I was building on a pretty impressive resume of non–Stanley Cup experience. Things turn quickly.”

Toronto is banking on it.