|Ron Hainsey was the top scoring defenseman on the Columbus Blue Jackets last season, leading all blueliners in goals, assists, points and shots.
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Help is on the way for the 23-year-old blueliner, who led the team’s defensemen with 33 assists and 38 points in 82 games as a rookie last season.
It began at the 2008 Entry Draft when the Thrashers selected Peterborough defenseman Zach Bogosian with the third overall choice. On Wednesday, General Manager Don Waddell continued the upgrade with the signing of mobile defenseman Ron Hainsey to a five-year deal.
"There were a few teams I was considering and I went over my options for two days, but, in the end, felt coach (John) Anderson’s style would suit me best," Hainsey told NHL.com. "Atlanta has some good, young players and the more I looked into the team, the more excited I got."
The 27-year-old defenseman is looking forward to putting his maneuverability to good use in Atlanta.
"I wasn’t given the green light as much in Columbus, but realize that could change in Atlanta,’’ he said. "I'm excited to have an opportunity to rush the puck, in addition to playing sound defense in our end."
In Hainsey, Waddell said he acquired a confident force along the blue line.
"In the new NHL, there’s no doubt having a player like Ron will provide a huge boost along the back line," Waddell told NHL.com. "Puck-moving defensemen are at a premium in the League, and Ron is the type who will be able to retrieve the puck and move it out of our zone.
"First off, he's a great skater and can make things happen off the transition. Secondly, we really didn't generate enough points from the blue line last year and that was an area we really wanted to improve upon. Third, we feel Ron, at his age, has a tremendous amount of upside. Let's face it, we went into free agency knowing we needed defenders that could push guys down and Ron is a legitimate top-four defender who'll be able to provide that for our hockey club."
While it may be a tad early to begin predicting defense pairings, the acquisition of Hainsey could allow Anderson to keep the Enstrom-Niclas Havelid pairing together while enabling Bogosian to work with the seasoned Hainsey. Havelid ranked second among the team’s defensemen with 14 points, including 13 assists.
"I guess we'll let the line combinations play out over the course of training camp," Waddell said. "We're going to give (Bogosian) every opportunity to play, and if he's ready it would certainly make sense to give him a shot. He'd be in a good situation."
Either way, the Thrashers, who finished 28th in the League with 76 points in 2007-08, are showing a commitment to revamp a defense that allowed the most shots per game (33.9) while finishing tied with Tampa Bay with a League-worst 3.24 goals-
against average per game. Additionally, the club ranked 27th with a 78.8-percent penalty-killing efficiency.
Hainsey said he would do whatever is needed to help the Thrashers get better.
"From all the reports I've read, it was a pretty deep draft and (Bogosian) was a big piece taken early," Hainsey said. "I'm sure he'll have every opportunity to come in and earn a spot. The thing is, you can't expect an 18- or 19-year-old to come in and have an impact right away. Hopefully, I'll be a guy who can help Zach adjust to and learn the position."
Hainsey had eight goals and 24 assists for 32 points in 78 games for Columbus last season. He led the team's defensemen in goals, assists, points and shots (161) while ranking second on the team in average ice time per game (22:33). The 6-foot-3, 209-pound native of Bolton, Conn., also ranked second on the team with eight power-play goals, tying him for sixth among NHL defenseman.
"Our coach is a much more aggressive guy,’" Waddell said of Anderson. "We can get more five-on-five points from a guy like Ron."
Hainsey has scored 85 points (20 goals, 65 assists) in 245 career NHL games with Montreal and Columbus. He posted career-highs in goals (nine), assists (25) and points (34) in 80 games with the Blue Jackets during the 2006-07 season. Hainsey has never participated in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Waddell said a player of Hainsey's ability will come in handy against clubs in the suddenly offensively-gifted Southeast Division. Atlanta finished 15-15-2 against Southeast foes in 2007-08.
"We're also looking at the fact Ron will provide great assistance against these clubs within our division," Waddell said. "We all know that Washington is loaded and Florida, Carolina and Tampa Bay have all added big-time players. Adding a defenseman like Ron, who's able to move the puck out of our zone, was of great importance to us."
"There are some big names in the Southeast, like (Alex) Ovechkin, (Vincent) Lecavalier and many others; each team has a lot of depth," Hainsey said. "I'm looking forward to the challenge those players present."
Drafted by the Montreal Canadiens in the first round (No. 13 overall) of the 2000 Draft, Hainsey was claimed by Columbus off waivers in November 2005. He’s since developed into a productive two-way defenseman despite playing for one of the League’s weakest teams. Columbus finished 13th in the Western Conference this past season, yet tied for eighth in the League with a 2.56 goals-against average.
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com.