It doesn’t take a vast intellect or astute observation skills to realize Ryan Whitney isn’t near the top of his game, or to conclude that the playoff hopes of the Edmonton Oilers decrease with every game it takes him to ascend to that lofty lefty again.
If you’ve watched Whitney play more than about 15 seconds during the 15 games he’s been healthy enough to get into on Tom Renney’s blue line so far this season, you have probably deduced that something’s wrong with the big defenseman. You’d be right.
While Whitney is 11 months removed from surgery to re-attach a damaged tendon in his right ankle last January, he told reporters after today’s morning skate in preparation for tonight’s game against the Detroit Red Wings that the ankle is causing him pain.
Enough of it, obviously, that Whitney has been a shadow of the player who had 27 points in 35 games when he went down with what would be a season-ending injury last December.
It’s been frustrating for Whitney and damaging to hopes the Oilers have of staying in the race for a playoff spot in the Western Conference, given how Ales Hemsky has struggled at the same time to find his form after having shoulder surgery.
We’ve had inklings about the progress of Whitney’s ankle since before training camp – I wrote about it here oilersnation.com/2011/8/24/ryan-whitney-about-that-ankle — and his comments this morning confirmed that he’s still not right.
CAN’T FIND HIS GAME
Whitney’s ankle kept him out of the first four regular season games before he returned against Calgary Oct. 18. He played just four games before he fell awkwardly and sprained his knee against Vancouver Oct. 25.
The knee kept Whitney out for 13 games until he returned Nov. 25 against Minnesota. In 11 games since then, he’s managed just two assists and hasn’t looked like his usual self. Now, we know why.
"It’s kind of a tough time," Whitney said. "I’m in a little bit of a battle zone just trying to get healthy and play some good hockey. I’ve got to be better. It’s pretty simple.
"I think it’ll come. I’m trying to really stay positive. It’s not for lack of hard work. It’s just about getting your game back. It’s as frustrating to me as it is to anyone else."
There’s obviously a big difference between playing with injury and playing with pain. While Whitney’s ankle has held together since he returned against Calgary, it’s clearly had an impact on his stride and mobility.
"You want to feel comfortable out there," Whitney said. "It’s tough to feel comfortable when you’re in pain. There’s obviously a thought process you’ve got to have in getting by that.
"Obviously, I’m not playing as much. Every guy wants to play more, but that’s just how it is. You’ve got to figure out ways to be productive and do your job whether you’re playing 18 minutes or 25 minutes."
While there’s a mental component to overcoming the surgery that Whitney had, or any surgery for that matter, it’s not just as simple as sucking it up and playing through the pain. That’s easier said than done.
"For me, it’s not really looking at points," Whitney said of how ineffective he’s been on the attack and the power play. "I mean, I’m not a two-points-in-15-games type player. That stuff should even out.
"It’s just about feeling better overall with your whole game. It’s physical. It’s obviously a little mental, but it’s physical when you take a stride and you feel pain. That’s as physical as you can get. You’ve got to just be mentally strong to get through those things. A lot of guys are playing in pain."
After back-to-back 30th-place finishes, the Oilers talked this season about the importance of making progress by playing meaningful games in March and April. Fading fast with a 2-7-1 record in their last 10 games and a seven-game road trip looming, I don’t like their chances.
Their other shortcomings aside, I’m not confident the Oilers will be playing meaningful games beyond January if Whitney doesn’t get right – and soon.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.