Friday, February 24, 2017

Ron Hainsey is an upgrade over the Penguins' three minor-league defensemen

By Mark Madden
February 23, 2017

Penguins Hurricanes Hockey
Ron Hainsey (65) defends against Sidney Crosby during the Penguins' 7-1 win in Raleigh on January 20, 2017. (Gerry Broome/AP)

Defenseman Ron Hainsey has played 891 NHL games over 14 seasons, but has never played a Stanley Cup playoff game. If a movie is ever made about Hainsey’s career, Steve Carell should get the lead.
Stanley Cup playoff experience is generally drooled over upon acquisition. Cup wins, even more so.
So, shouldn’t a defending champ have trepidation about a player who hasn’t even seen the road his new team hopes to travel?
No matter. Hainsey is small potatoes. Competent, certainly. Average at just about everything, which makes him a better option than Cameron Gaunce, Steve Oleksy and Chad Ruhwedel, three minor-league defensemen who have proven themselves exactly that during their Pittsburgh stint.
It’s incredible that a 35-year-old who has never played a Stanley Cup playoff game and is minus-81 on his career is a clear upgrade. But Hainsey is.
Hainsey shoots left and is left-sided. The Penguins could do with a right-sided version of Hainsey, too. It would be rash to think that Penguins defensemen will stop getting hurt come playoff time. The more, the merrier. But getting Hainsey helps most if Hainsey doesn’t have to play.
Overanalyzing the value of low-impact players is the business I’ve chosen. So is parsing fanboy trade proposals that could never occur. Yinzer Nation wants to deal for Ron Francis and Ulf Samuelsson every year.
But the reality of winning a second straight Stanley Cup doesn’t depend on such issues. It depends on:
*The Penguins must get healthy – as opposed to the corner of the locker room where the defensemen dress resembling a triage unit. Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust have proven their value as Sidney Crosby’s linemates in absentia.
*Matt Murray must keep proving himself. Murray has already won a Cup, and has solid stats this season (technically his rookie campaign). But goaltender is the most important position, and 22 is an awkward age for a goalie.
*Secondary scoring. The HBK line is unlikely to repeat the pyrotechnics of last year’s postseason. But it will probably play together because Coach Mike Sullivan wants a big-time threat on each of his top three lines.
*Crosby, Phil Kessel, Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin have to play up to their capabilities. If they don’t, Hainsey won’t pick up the slack. The Penguins are a team built on star power. The quartet mentioned must excel.
If the Penguins don’t win a second straight Cup, it won’t be because they’re not good enough, or because GM Jim Rutherford didn’t make a revelatory trade. It will be because of fatigue: 106 games last season, followed by a World Cup of Hockey for the stars, followed by a tightly-packed 2016-17 schedule.
No team has won consecutive Cups since 1998. That’s not random.
The Penguins may have a secret weapon in reserve: Yesterday, Mario Lemieux was seen skating with Jay Caufield, his fitness guru, at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry.
That could be because Lemieux is preparing for his annual fantasy camp, which runs Saturday-Wednesday.
Or it could be because he’s planning a mind-boggling comeback at 51. I’m told he’s in the best shape of his life.
Either way, it’s got to feel amazing when you skate at a $70 million complex that bears your name.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

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