Talk is cheap and we’ve yet to see words turn to action, but when I hung up the phone tonight after talking to Ryan Whitney, I was infinitely more confident about the state of his right ankle and his future with the Edmonton Oilers than I was when we chatted a year ago.
More important than what my old gut tells me or what I read between the lines, which are inexact indicators at best, Whitney sounds like a new man, or maybe I should say he sounds like the old Whitney – the version Edmonton fans saw for 35 games in 2010-11 before the tendon in his right ankle shredded and sent him down a long and difficult road of rehab and recovery on the way to a trying 2011-12 campaign.
Whitney, 29, tried to put the best possible spin on the state of his ankle last August when we talked, but he was less than convincing. Not surprisingly, the big Bostonian struggled mightily – who is that slow-footed, out-of-position imposter wearing No. 6? Whitney put up 3-17-20 and averaged 20:58 in ice time in 51 games. Numbers aside, he was a plodding shadow of the player who’d tallied 2-25-27 and logged 25:20 a night before the ankle came apart.
After spending last summer just trying to heal after surgery, Whitney’s been back in the gym since the beginning of June and he’s skated a dozen times or so in Boston. That doesn’t by any means guarantee he’ll again be everything fans came to expect during that particularly torrid start to 2010-11 whenever the puck drops this season, but might we see a reasonable facsimile?
There is hope.
ONE YEAR LATER
"I feel 100 times better right now than I did last August," Whitney said. "It’s not even comparable to a year ago. I’ve had a full summer of working out and that’s something I didn’t have the last couple years. I feel really good."
I believe Whitney. Last year? Not so much. After we did a segment of Nation Radio last Aug. 13, I wrote: "I’ve listened to the interview, on Nation Radio, two or three times since Whitney and I chatted, and I’ve got to admit that now, as then, I’m not completely convinced the ankle will be 100 per cent by the time that training camp opens.
"More important, whenever Whitney is ready, how will that surgically repaired tendon that detached respond when he starts pushing people and they start pushing back in game action? And how long will it hold up?
"Maybe I’m crossed up on this one, drawing the wrong conclusions from the interview, but the questions about Whitney’s ankle nag me no matter how many times I listen to his answers. I’m nervous. The Oilers should be, too."
Sure enough, when camp opened Whitney wasn’t nearly ready to go and Edmonton’s defensive corps, questionable in terms having enough bonafide top-four bodies even with No. 6 in the mix, started the season without their best defenseman.
THIS TIME AROUND
"There’s maybe a little issue here and there with the stability of it, but you’ve got to adjust and players adjust to all kinds of injuries," Whitney said. "The big thing is I can skate without that pain."
Whitney has been pain-free since the end of last season. There were signs of that in the late going when some of his mobility returned and he started to play better. He wasn’t, and isn’t, all the way back, and he might never be, but he sounds confident he’ll be ready to go whenever Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr figure out how to carve up the take.
The ankle aside, being able to tackle a full training regimen has him feeling like he’s in better shape now than when he arrived in Edmonton. He says his legs are strong. His cardio is good. Lack of conditioning saw him play at about 215 pounds last season. He’ll come in closer to 206 pounds this season.
Age-wise, Whitney is right in his prime as a player. He’s in the final year of a contract that will pay him $5.5 million (his cap hit is $4 million). A return to form, or close to it, will land him another big contract. If he struggles or is in and out of the line-up, everything changes. The Oilers need Whitney to stabilize their back end. They need him to eat minutes. They need him to stay healthy. This is a big season for him.
"It’s a big year for the whole team, for all of us," Whitney said. "I want to be a part of that."
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.