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Whitney proving a magician again in 19th season

Friday, 03.23.2012 / 9:53 AM / Player Profiles

By Jerry Brown - NHL.com Correspondent

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Whitney proving a magician again in 19th season
Ray Whitney shows no signs of slowing down; in fact, the Coyotes' veteran is putting together one of his best seasons in years.
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- It's not hard to find someone in the Phoenix front office, among the coaching staff or in the Coyotes' locker room who will talk about what might be the single most impressive season of Ray Whitney's distinguished, 19-year NHL career -- and the impressive milestone that will come along with it.

"He's playing as well as any offensive player in the League right now," Coyotes general manager Don Maloney said.

"Every time he touches the puck, it looks like something good is going to happen," Phoenix coach Dave Tippett said.

"He's been our MVP this year, hands down," defenseman Derek Morris said.

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But don't ask "The Wizard" to talk about his own magical works. Always willing to weigh in about the contributions of others -- or to get in a good dig at their expense -- Whitney politely but emphatically declines when the topic turns to his numbers, superstitiously concerned it will somehow break the spell that has him leaving all those around him bewitched.

Less than two months shy of his 40th birthday, the 5-foot-10 bundle of skill has already cracked the 40-assist mark for the seventh time. He's tied for 12th in the League in scoring with 70 points -- and among the top 20 scorers, Whitney's plus-25 rating ranks No. 1.

And with 996 career points with seven games left in the regular season -- and the Coyotes continuing their furious push to the playoffs for the third straight year -- Whitney can become the 79th player in NHL history to reach the coveted 1,000-point plateau with just four more …

Oops, sorry Ray. No time for bad karma.

Whitney has been in NHL dressing rooms for parts of four decades, since his days as an Edmonton stick boy during the Oilers' dynasty of the 1980s. But there is no denying he's getting better with age.

Whitney has collected nearly half of his career points (406 of 996) after the age of 34. His 323 points after the age of 35 ranks third among active players behind only Teemu Selanne and Nicklas Lidstrom.

But this particular season, where he has taken the Phoenix offense on his back, become the Coyotes' top shootout specialist and piled up numbers on a team with the League's worst power play, has earned Whitney the undying respect of all around him.

"He's a star every game out there, and it's not a fluke," Maloney said. "Game in and game out, in a playoff atmosphere and against the best defenders in the League … he's producing and he looks great doing it. He's literally driving our offense forward."

With 30-goal scorer Radim Vrbata mired in a scoring slump and Shane Doan scoring once in 12 games prior to a three-game suspension, Whitney has taken it up another notch. He has points in 23 of the last 27 games (9 goals, 22 assists) and done much of it with his regular center (Martin Hanzal) injured, Vrbata in a funk and offensively-challenged Coyotes scrounging for goals.

"We've been chasing (from behind) in so many games, and every time we get the puck in his hands we have a chance to get back in it," Tippet said. "He's scoring huge goals, setting up huge goals. He's been great the whole year, but as the urgency of the games have elevated he's stepped up his game to meet that.

"When I was 39, I'd been retired five years. But he loves to play and loves to win. As you get older sometimes that passion wanes, but with him it's very strong. He loves the game and the competitive part of the game."

Whitney attributes his longevity in the game to taking care of his body -- and making sure he doesn't lose a step by slacking in the offseason.

"When the season is over, a lot of guys head to Vegas or Cancun and get away from the game and training, and that's what I did when I was younger," he said. "But when you get older, you realize that you have to make the sacrifice. You stop drinking and partying and that stuff. At the end of the season, I take three or four days off and then I start back up.

"If you can keep yourself at a certain level, I feel you can hold off that drop-off."

Whitney, 39, is tied for 12th in the League in scoring with 70 points. (Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Even after playing 18 minutes a night during the season, Whitney heads to the training room afterward along with teammate Raffi Torres to work on upper-body exercises to match the work the legs have been doing all night. "I think we've hit on something that makes a difference," he said.

Teammates like Morris and Daymond Langkow -- veterans with flecks of gray in their beards -- marvel at Whitney's consistency and production the most. They know Whitney has been waived, released, left unsigned and otherwise forsaken at different points of his career, and his determination is an inspiration.

"When you played against him, you always knew he was a good player and you admired him from a distance," Morris said. "But to see him now … this is the best I've ever seen him play, and he deserves all the credit. You looked at him when he comes into training camp … he always jokes that he hasn't worked out very hard, but you can tell by looking at him that he trained his butt off."

Again an unrestricted free agent this summer, Whitney looks at players like Mark Recchi, who was still productive when he was 43, and feels there is another two or three years in him. Maloney said once the team's long-term future is settled, he will be first in line with a multi-year offer, but the lure of his adopted home of Carolina might be an option as well.

"He loves the game, and that's something a lot of people lose as they get older," Morris said. "But he truly enjoys being at the rink every day and proving people wrong. I don't know if there is a guy who's been written off more in his career, and that fire just burns and burns. 

"Every year he says maybe another, maybe another, but deep down he knows he has a lot of hockey left in him -- and he's showing it right now."

Quote of the Day

We think that Randy is a very good coach. Our players think that Randy is a very good coach. We think that he's going to get the most out of this group. With the addition of the two assistants, a bit of a different dynamic, we're very comfortable that this is a quality coaching staff that's going to maximize the potential of this team.

— Maple Leafs GM Dave Nonis on head coach Randy Carlyle and his staff