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Droschak: Wizard Waving Wand Yet Again

by David Droschak / Carolina Hurricanes
This time of year talk of team MVP surfaces on a regular basis. Topping the list for the Hurricanes are Cam Ward and Eric Staal. And it’s hard to discount the seasons logged by defenseman Joni Pitkanen or Joe Corvo.

The fact that 36-year-old Ray Whitney isn’t on many “MVP short lists” is emblematic of his underappreciated NHL career and quiet nature. If you approached the alternate captain on the subject it’s even money he would crack a joke about his candidacy, or poke fun at himself and his ability.

But there are no players – even counting three-time All-Star Staal – who can match the overall consistency No. 13 has displayed since arriving in Raleigh four seasons ago. Heading into the weekend, Whitney leads Carolina in scoring with 69 points while recently registering his 300th career goal and 500th assist in 17 NHL seasons. Over a four-year span, Staal has 318 points in 321 games, while Whitney is right on his tail with 268 points in 286 games.

Whitney arrived with little fanfare in August 2005, probably because he had been released twice and placed on waivers twice while playing for five teams in his first 13 seasons. Despite playing in the 2000 and 2003 All-Star games, the 5-foot-9 left wing seemed pretty expendable by a talent-rich Detroit team of future Hall of Famers.

“I have seen it all, that’s for sure,” Whitney said.

He then quickly catches himself, transforming his serious nature into his comedic side.

“I’ve been trying to tell people for years how good I was and nobody was listening. Finally, I caught Jimmy (Rutherford) on a soft moment and he must have agreed and he gave me that chance,” Whitney said. “The management and staff we have here gave me that opportunity. You see it with a lot of guys around the league who go to one organization and it clicks. It’s tough to find that team, but I was fortunate to find that here.”

During Whitney’s first season – Carolina’s Cup-winning year – the journeyman proved to be a valuable commodity, getting 55 points in 63 games while scoring nine playoff goals. The next season, Whitney responded with career highs in goals (32) and points (83). The reward was a three-year contract worth $3.55 million per season. Once again, Rutherford had a keen eye for something we all missed.

“No risk. I was very comfortable with that contract,” Rutherford said. “Sometimes when you’re signing older players you have to bring a number of things into the equation and one of the biggest things for me is the character – what the player does if his game starts to break down. But as we’ve seen his game has continued to be extremely good.

“It’s more than being a point-a-game guy,” Rutherford continued. “It’s when he gets his points, when we’re going through tough times as a team or we’re in games where the game is on the line that’s where Ray Whitney brings his game to another level. That’s the sign of a special player.”

Nearly one-third of Whitney’s career goals have come on the power play, where he excels by being patient, intelligent and exact. He also is a key reason the Canes have outscored opponents 12-4 this season skating 4-on-4, which provides more open ice to skill players such as Whitney, who has 17 points over his last 12 games during Carolina’s stretch run.

“When you give him a little bit of time that’s when he’s dangerous,” said captain Rod Brind’Amour. “He’s one of those players who always know where everybody is and he thinks one step ahead. That’s one thing fans don’t notice, but playing with him or against him, you know he’s thinking a step ahead and if you get to a certain area there’s a good chance he’s going to get you the puck. It’s confidence and knowing what the other guy is going to do. You have to think what they are going to do, too. Those are the things you can’t even teach.”

Matt Cullen has been seen his game improve over the last month playing with Whitney, while Staal says the Wizard’s “skills and offensive instincts are some of the best I’ve ever played with.”

“He’s an invaluable player,” Cullen said. “You just don’t find guys that can play the game the way he does. His intelligence on the ice is what sets him apart. In today’s era of big, strong, fast guys there are not a ton of guys who can play like he can and there’s a reason he’s been around for so long and successful for so long in really every role he’s played in.”

Whitney was one of many players who weren’t around during Paul Maurice’s first coaching stint in Raleigh. So, Maurice had to take a crash course on ability and mental make-up his first week on his new job back. Maurice’s take on Whitney was unexpected, but quite flattering.

“The first time on the ice I thought he worked a lot harder than I would have expected,” Maurice said. “His work ethic was really good. And he’s a lot tougher than most players of his style of game -- and I’m not talking about dropping the gloves -- but what he’s willing to play with and play through. He’s as tough as they come. He doesn’t get that reputation, but in terms of mental toughness and being able to play in games where he’s not 100 percent, that has been the most impressive thing.

“And he’s along the lines of a Ronnie Francis in terms of his vision of the game when he’s on the bench and his ability to explain to you what happened, what adjustments he has to make. He’s got a bit of a coaching mind, although he’s not going to admit that. Ray can really see the game and he can articulate it.”

While there is debate on who is Carolina’s MVP, Whitney takes a backseat to no player when it comes to golf. I played with The Wizard a few years ago and he didn’t miss a fairway, shooting his usual 72. And I must admit I never laughed harder or had a better time on the links.

“His one-liners are better than anybody I’ve ever heard,” Staal said. “He’s got a one-liner for anything, and it’s very quick, and it comes out of nowhere.”

“He thinks he’s funny, that’s for sure,” added a laughing Brind’Amour. “He has his days.”

Oh yeah, his days, many of which experts never would have predicted or believed were already in the rear view mirror for a small guy with a big heart. 

“He really makes a difference in our team,” Rutherford said. “His biggest asset is when the game is on the line he’s the guy you want on the ice, you want the puck on his stick, whether he’s going to make the play or whether he’s going to take the shot. That’s when he’s at his best.”

Keep it light Ray, and keep producing. The joke is on everybody else.
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