Fans growing frustrated watching Ryan Whitney of the Edmonton Oilers struggle to bounce back from ankle surgery and find his game have nothing on the hobbled defenseman. He feels your pain, and then some.
That became abundantly clear today as Whitney met with reporters in a hallway outside the Oilers dressing room after the team skated in Leduc to discuss the tendinitis that kept him out of Tom Renney’s line-up in a 5-3 loss to the Vancouver Canucks Monday.
The latest setback for Whitney – a right ankle that hasn’t healed and come around as expected since doctors re-attached a torn tendon 11 months ago – has the usually upbeat blueliner feeling down and out, even if he tried to put a positive spin on how he’s feeling these days.
You think it sucks to watch Whitney struggling on the ice like he’s skating on two left feet without the ability to play the way he’s shown he’s capable of with the Oilers fading fast in the Western Conference?
Listen to him.
ANATOMY OF THE INJURY
"I had a really uncommon injury last year," said Whitney, who has played in 17 games this season and in just 52 of Edmonton’s last 117 games. "The surgery went well, it was a success, but it doesn’t happen very often so there’s some question marks.
"I had an MRI and the surgery looks good, but my ankle is just so weak right now. So, because of that, it’s pretty unstable. It’s tough to skate. It’s pronating in (rolling inward on the arch of the foot) is the problem.
"Until it strengthens, which, really, I don’t know when that will be, they (doctors) think it will definitely happen, so that’s a good sign. Until that really stops, my foot will always fall in and that puts pressure on that tendon, the post-tib tendon (posterior tibial tendon).
"That causes tendinitis after pressure is being put on it so often skating. The unfortunate thing for me is I haven’t been able to skate yet. I don’t feel right out there, you know? At the same time, I’m still playing on a foot, or little more than a foot."
BEATING HIMSELF UP
"I’m still an average defenseman in this league," said Whitney said, who had 27 points in 35 games last season but has just three assists in 17 games this season.
"Unfortunately for myself and the team and Tambi (Steve Tambellini), I’m paid a lot more than an average defenseman. So, it’s a tough time mentally and physically just because you don’t know when it will get better.
"When it’s unstable, the problem of the foot falling in, I can play. It’s no issue. I’m by no means, I think everyone’s aware, playing at the level I did last year. I can. It’s not for lack of effort. It’s just the foot isn’t exactly doing what I need it to do.
"When that pain’s there, though, I just can’t do it. It’s falling in and then there’s pain, so it’s just like two things added up. That was just the past few weeks. That’ll get better and I’ll be able to play, it’s just I need that ankle to get stronger to get back to the player this team needs me to be and that I want to be and I’m paid to be.
"It’s very frustrating. Still, it’s just about me going, basically, to the ends of the earth to find a solution, whether it be this month or the summer. I just feel bad not playing, you know, at the level the team needs me because, you know, we’re losing and . . . it’s just a tough time. I’m not losing hope by any means, it’s just physically and mentally kind of draining."
UNCERTAIN ROAD AHEAD
I asked Whitney, who will accompany the Oilers on their six-game road trip, if this is something he can play through or if he’s facing an extended period of staying out of the line-up to heal properly.
"I can play through it," he said, not sounding convincing. "I don’t see, really, a time soon when I’ll be 100 per cent. A lot of guys aren’t playing 100 per cent, so that’s not necessarily a big thing. I can play through, like I said. The foot not being, you know, completely 100 per cent balanced and stable.
"As tough as that is to explain to you guys, I know it’s easier for me to feel it than explain it. I can play through it. It’s just about mentally being as pissed off as, I’m sure, people who are watching me, that I’m not playing as good as I have or could.
"It’s not anything I’m not doing off the ice or on the ice. It’s just when you go to do certain things and have quick movements and pivot and stop certain ways and it physically doesn’t happen. It’s just kind of an empty feeling. I can play through it. It’s just, like I said, me playing average hockey and it’s not really what I’m paid to do."
THIS WILL TAKE TIME
As I said off the top, and you can take this to the bank, Whitney in no more accepting of how he’s playing, despite obviously mitigating circumstances and physical challenges, than fans are. This is eating away at him.
I was prompted in the scrum today to suggest that Whitney might want to cut himself some slack over this. The issue, after all, goes well beyond just "sucking it up" and playing through some pain. If only it was that easy.
"There’s a difference between feeling good out there and feeling balanced, which I never feel this year, and playing poorly and getting into it," Whitney said. "The difference between that and what I’m feeling in not even being balanced and not even being . . .
"So, it’s like you’re playing poorly but there’s no end in sight because I’m going to be battling this, right, for the next little while. If you feel good out there and it’s just timing, yeah, you give yourself time.
"But when you know you’ve got to get used to this, I’ve got to learn how to play like this . . . You know, you’ve got to learn, like, to cover guys different. It’s almost like you’ve got to cheat in certain ways because you can’t do certain things you’ve always been accustomed to doing. It’s really tough to explain. I feel bad, but that’s me doing my best."
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.