Unusual Rielly-Hainsey pairing paying off for Leafs

Morgan Rielly and Ron Hainsey have been a productive pair for the Maple Leafs so far this season. (Getty Images)

Given his quiet style of play it’s not often that Ron Hainsey gets to play the hero for the Toronto Maple Leafs, but on Wednesday night he was front and centre.

In a 3-1 win over the Anaheim Ducks, he posted two assists with a plus-3 rating and played an astounding 7:38 out of the team’s eight minutes of perfect penalty killing time, including a potentially goal-saving block on Antoine Vermette.

It was arguably the most conspicuous performance of the year by an otherwise inconspicuous performer, helping to highlight the strength of the Maple Leafs’ most effective defence pairing this season: Hainsey and Morgan Rielly.

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Rielly, at 23, is arguably the team’s top defenceman whereas Hainsey, 36, is a guy who profiles more as a third pairing type, making it a superficially odd combination. They also are an exception to Mike Babcock’s left-right pairing dogma as both shoot left.

The best logic to bind Rielly and Hainsey is that Rielly is an offensive-minded puck mover and Hainsey can enable his risk-taking with more steady play. To some extent that’s what we’ve seen this year, although Hainsey actually has more points at even strength (9) than Rielly (6). That said, a better representation of the difference in their offensive inclination is the shot total where the young former fifth overall pick is unsurprisingly blowing away the vet 34 to 12.

More important than how it works for the Maple Leafs is that it works, and so far it works by pretty much any measure you can point to. Offensively speaking, the pair has 15 even strength points to date. The rest of the defence corps has combined for 16.

Possession-wise Rielly is the top player on the team after two consecutive seasons of failing to post a positive Relative Corsi. Hainsey isn’t far behind as the fifth-best Corsi player on the team with only the dynamic trio of Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner sandwiched between them. Hainsey is coming off 11 consecutive seasons of negative Relative Corsi having posted a modest 0.4 mark back in his rookie year of 2007-2008. When it comes to driving play, something about this pairing is clearly clicking.

An underrated aspect of the duo has also been their disciplined play. Rielly has four penalty minutes — all coming in the Maple Leafs opener against the Winnipeg Jets. Hainsey has taken a single minor penalty. For comparison’s sake, the now-split pair of Jake Gardiner and Nikita Zaitsev has taken a combined 11 penalties in a similar amount of ice time. One of the best ways to keep the puck out of your net is to stay out of the box, and these two have done that.

When it comes to special teams, Rielly and Hainsey have divided and conquered impressively. The 23-year-old has become a staple on the power play after failing to consistently hold a role there last season. Having unseated Zaitsev, his four power-play points rank second on the club to James van Riemsdyk.

Hainsey, on the other hand, has been Babcock’s penalty-killing ace. The veteran blueliner is averaging 4:55 minutes of short-handed time a night — tops in the NHL. In fact, his 63:58 played short-handed is 10:13 more than the next most prolific penalty killer in the league, Matthias Ekholm of the Nashville Predators. No one has more ownership over the team’s top-10 penalty kill unit than Hainsey, an especially impressive feat given Frederik Andersen’s bumpy start to the season.

Prior to the Maple Leafs’ California road trip, Babcock made radical changes to the team’s lineup in an effort to hit the reset button. There were only two units he kept the same: the Matthews line and the Rielly-Hainsey pairing. The latter certainly isn’t as dominant as the former, but there’s a reason they were untouched.