On an Oilers team with more than a few pleasant surprises, it is the play of Ryan Whitney that stands out more than anything else to me. The 27 year-old defenceman leads the Oilers in a variety of statistical measures, and I think that to date he’s easily been the most valuable player on the team.
On a team with what might be the weakest blue-line in the league, Whitney has been a stalwart. His 18 minutes and 38 seconds of even-strength ice-time leads the team. His 2:43 shorthanded per game is six seconds less than team leader Tom Gilbert. No player sees more than the 4:35 a night Whitney puts in with the man advantage. He leads or is tied for the team lead in total points, even-strength points, short-handed points, and sits just two back of Kurtis Foster for the lead in power-play points. At plus-12, he’s the lone Oiler in double-digits by plus-minus, and has more than double the next best player (Ales Hemsky, plus-5).
To be sure, Whitney’s had some breaks along the way. As the team’s premiere offensive defenceman, he’s been getting more offensive zone starts than anyone else on the blueline. He’s also generally seen second-pairing matchups, while Tom Gilbert has been cast in the role of top shutdown defenceman (that is, when the two have been played apart).
Then again, Whitney’s been shuttled around the line-up, used by head coach Tom Renney as a band-aide to help whatever defenceman is struggling at the moment. After a rough patch, Tom Gilbert started looking better after playing with Whitney. There isn’t a defenceman on the team that hasn’t seen a significant amount of time on a pairing with Whitney.
At his worst, Whitney’s been passable; at his best he’s been significantly more than that. I’m going to quote Derek Zona’s take on his performance against Columbus the other night:
Ryan Whitney may have put on one of the best performances by a defenseman in the history of the Edmonton Oilers. He had two assists and three shots on goal. He was a +4 on five even strength goals. He was on the ice for five of Edmonton’s six goals and none of Columbus’ three goals. He did all of this while paired with Jason Strudwick.
Whitney has been everything anyone could have expected, and then some.
That said, I have trouble seeing Whitney’s offensive breakthrough continuing.
In 2007-08, Ryan Whitney scored 0.88 points for every 60 minutes of even-strength ice-time he played, all of them with the Pittsburgh Penguins. In 2008-09, Whitney was dealt midway through the season from Pittsburgh to Anaheim, but his even-strength offence remained unchanged, at 0.89 PTS/60. In 2009-10, Whitney was dealt yet again, moving from Anaheim to Edmonton, but once more his even-strength offence was untouched; he scored 0.84 PTS/60. Three seasons, three different teams, but through it all Whitney remained a consistent scorer at even-strength, always tallying between 0.84 and 0.89 PTS/60 at even-strength.
To date in 2010-11, Whitney is recording 1.70 PTS/60 at even-strength, or roughly double what he’s done in each of the previous three seasons. Maybe he’s broken out at the age of 27, but I personally believe he’s going to cool off a bit. 1.70 PTS/60 is an elite number; since 2007-08 it’s been topped only once, by Mike Green with a 1.77 PTS/60 in 2009-10. A lot would have to break right for Whitney to keep up that kind of pace.
I’m going to enjoy it while it lasts, however. And I trust I’ll continue to enjoy his solid play for a long while after that.