By DAVID SHOALTS
Saturday, October 6, 2018
TORONTO -- The Toronto Maple Leafs may be just one game into the NHL season but it looks as though Mike Babcock has an unpleasant decision in front of him.
Not that the head coach is ready, at least for public consumption, to make it.
When the Montreal Canadiens made the Leafs look flat-footed in their season opener on Wednesday night, it became obvious 37-year-old defenceman Ron Hainsey had all sorts of trouble keeping up with the speedy Habs.
On Montreal's first goal, Hainsey was caught at the Toronto blueline on a rush and could not recover in time to get back and help partner Morgan Rielly fend off the wraparound goal. There were similar incidents throughout the night, including one in the third period when he took an interference penalty in his attempt to stop Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher from blowing by him.
If this continues through the Leafs' weekend back-to-back set against the Ottawa Senators on Saturday and the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday, Babcock may be forced into shuffling his defence pairs. But on Friday, the coach made it clear he is satisfied with the defence, even if the top two pairs did not have a good night in the 3-2 win over the Habs.
"It's interesting what I hear about all that stuff," Babcock said. "Our defence is just fine.
But I can tell you this right now - if you never play in the offensive zone, if you don't put any pressure on the other team's D, your D never looks very good. That's a five-man unit that's got to make that happen and that didn't happen."
Well then, coach, what is the problem? The forwards not putting enough pressure on the opposition defence in its own end, or the defence not getting the puck moving quickly in your own?
"I think what comes first, the chicken or the egg?" Babcock said.
Part of the problem is that Hainsey has been living on borrowed time since he arrived in Toronto last season as a freeagent signing from the Pittsburgh Penguins. He was ostensibly the roster replacement for Matt Hunwick, who signed with the Pens.
Hunwick, too, was a well-travelled veteran who was used up and down the Leafs roster, although he did not spend as much time as Hainsey on the top pairing, which is where the trouble comes from.
Babcock, who loves veterans with Stanley Cup rings, installed Hainsey on the top pair with Morgan Rielly. Then he had Hainsey on the ice for what seemed to be almost every second the Leafs were killing a penalty. By the end of last season, the wear was getting noticeable on the personable Hainsey. By the end of the Canadiens game the other night it was glaring.
The other problem is that Hainsey has never been a consistent top-pair guy in his 16 years in the league.
True, he did play much of the 2017 playoffs on the Penguins' top pair when they won the Stanley Cup, but that was because the team had so many injuries.
If Hainsey is to remain an effective penalty killer and someone to keep the front of the net clear, then it might be an idea to reduce his workload. There was a sign Babcock recognized the problem, as the No. 2 defence pair of Jake Gardiner and Nikita Zaitsev finished the Montreal game with a good two minutes more ice-time than Hainsey and Rielly.
Babcock argued the Leafs' top four, with the exception of Zaitsev, all had a bad night. "But I think we're all in it together," the coach said. "To me, just keep on getting better and being solid defensively. Mo [Rielly] wants to be good offensively, we want him to be a real good shutdown guy.
That goes the same for [Gardiner]. We've challenged all our D to be better in certain areas. That's a focus for us. I think we've been working at that pretty good."
Someone did make a strong case to move up the defence chart on Wednesday night. Second-year man Travis Dermott drew a few barbs from Babcock for his uneven play in the preseason, but he was the Leafs' best defenceman on opening night. If this keeps up, he should be headed the opposite way on the roster than Hainsey.
Then the problem becomes pairing right-handed shots with the lefties. The only right shots among the Leafs' top six defencemen are Zaitsev and rookie Igor Ozhiganov, who also played well in the Habs game. This is where things could get interesting.
Justin Holl and Martin Marincin are the extra defencemen right now. While Holl shoots right and is probably ahead of Marincin in the pecking order, it is possible neither one could step in if Hainsey falls all the way to healthy scratch.
When second-year defencemen Andreas Borgman and Calle Rosen were sent down to the Toronto Marlies farm team after training camp, it was probably because Leafs management wanted them playing rather than sitting in the press box. Neither player shoots right but one of them could get the call if Babcock decides he needs a new face in his top six.
Toronto defenceman Ron Hainsey falls into goaltender Frederik Andersen last season against the Montreal Canadiens on April 7, 2018.
CHRIS YOUNG/THE CANADIAN PRESS