Talent will only get you so far in the NHL. To thrive, as a team, or as an individual, the level of commitment has to be raised.
That's a lesson both the Columbus Blue Jackets and Ron Hainsey have learned through the midway point of the 2007-08 season. While the team has played its way into a playoff race, Hainsey is doing his part by having a career year, showcasing a complete game from the Columbus back end. He leads all Jackets defensemen in scoring with five goals and 19 assists through 45 games – ranking fourth on the team among all skaters – and has posted a solid +6 rating in that time, second only to Jan Hejda.
All while averaging about 22 minutes of ice per game, which suggests that the former first round draft pick (13th overall by the Montreal Canadiens in 2000) from Bolton, Connecticut has gained the trust of his demanding head coach in his fourth season as an NHL regular.
"Since Hitch took over about 20 games in last year, things have changed quite a bit in the way we play, the way we prepare and the way we train in the off-season," says Hainsey. "All of that has definitely led to an improvement."
Hainsey's last time out at Nationwide Arena is a perfect example of his expanding role on the team. Just a couple minutes into an important Western Conference match-up with the Vancouver Canucks, the big D-man gave the Jackets a 1-0 lead after wristing a shot from the high slot to beat Roberto Luongo, arguably the best goaltender in the league. He finished the game, a 3-2 Jackets win, with a team-high 25:45 in ice time, including nine minutes on the power play, far and away the highest tally on the team.
He appears to be a different player from the one who despite scoring 34 points last season (a franchise best for defensemen), was -19 on the year and by the end, lacking confidence. Since sitting against the Calgary Flames on Dec. 18, Hainsey has been tearing it up with two goals and seven assists in 13 games, including a four-game point streak.
"I think his evolution started in the summer," says Hitchcock. "He was really disappointed with the way the season finished (last year). He had a lot of minuses in the last 20 games or so.
"He really dedicated himself conditioning wise. I think it's really paid off. He's been healthy, he's competed at a high level, he's been excellent at the five-on-five part of the game. Everyone has a lot of faith in him."
Hainsey arrived in Columbus a few years ago after a trying stretch in the early part of his pro career. He was part of the US Developmental Program for two years almost a decade ago and then spent two seasons playing college with UMass-Lowell where he earned NCAA Second Team All-American honors in 2000-01.
But cracking the Canadiens lineup for any extended period of time proved to be difficult. He went pointless through 21 games as an NHL rookie in 2002-03 and then saw action in just 11 games the following year, while spending most of the season with Habs' American Hockey League affiliate the Hamilton Bulldogs.
Hainsey made some strides in Hamilton, showing his flair for offense (7-24-31 and +14 in 54 games) but the NHL lockout ruled out any chance of him earning a spot in the Montreal lineup in 2004-05. Hainsey suggests that Montreal might be the most passionate hockey market there is but most of that knowledge came from observing.
"I didn't play a ton there," he says of his time with the Canadiens. "I never really had a ton of responsibility. I saw a lot of things about how fans got on the guys but I never really experienced it myself."
The low point came in late 2005. Hainsey began the year in Hamilton and by November, he was waived by the famous bleu, blanc et rouge. Being placed on waivers typically suggests that an athlete is deemed expendable but rather than dwell on that, Hainsey was eager to show what he could do for a new club after being picked up by the Jackets on November 20, 2005.
"I definitely saw it as an opportunity," he says. "When I was picked up, Doug MacLean was the GM. He just said, 'You're going to get an opportunity to show what you can do at this level.' I hadn't really had it yet and he said just make the most of it.
"That's what I tried to do. I got picked up here on a Wednesday and played the next night. It was an easy transition, just going out there and playing right away."
A couple years into his Columbus tenure, Hainsey has turned the corner. Still just 26, his increased commitment to the game has transformed him into a much more complete player than he was early in his NHL career. Hainsey's offensive abilities have never been in question. He's slick with the puck, has a great shot from the point and is intelligent when he throws it at the net with purpose, hoping for a deflection in many cases.
In his own end, Hainsey has worked hard to become a reliable defender who makes a difference in even-strength situations.
"He's the perfect example of a guy that's made himself a good player," says Hitchcock. "He came in with a reputation as a one-dimensional player and now he's made himself a good hockey player."
Consistency has helped. Hainsey believes that having a regular partner in Rostislav Klesla has contributed to his growth this year.
"It's been great," he says of his pairing with Klesla. "We've played pretty much every game together so far. We played a little bit together last year but this is the first time we've really had an extended run together. Aside from a couple games, we've really been good communicating and breakout wise. We've been working to improve that.
"Our communication and our work with the puck has been really solid."
From waiver casualty to quality NHL minute eater, Hainsey is now thriving as a Blue Jacket. That turnaround isn't lost on the talented blueliner.
"It's been an unbelievable opportunity for me," Hainsey says.