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Red-hot Whitney getting better with age in Phoenix

by Jerry Brown
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- To say Ray Whitney's first month as a Phoenix Coyote didn't go very well at all would be a huge understatement.

Signed as a free agent to jazz up the Phoenix power play and give the defense-first team a more dynamic presence, neither side was happy with the fit.

Whitney was playing through a painful hand injury, irritated about his ice time, unfamiliar with his linemates and annoyed by a reintroduction to the Western Conference travel schedule.

That combination of factors can make for one grumpy old man. And the 38-year-old Whitney's statistics 13 games into the season -- no goals and 5 assists and no multiple-point games -- weren't doing much for the Coyotes, who spent $6 million to bring his skill and savvy to the desert for two years.

Finally in early November -- with the Coyotes coming off three-straight losses and Whitney's outlook not helping matters -- he and Phoenix coach Dave Tippett closed the door and had a frank one-on-one discussion.
"I was frustrated with how I was feeling, how I was playing and it bubbled over and Tip and I had a talk about it. I got a little ornery at times and he was pretty honest about his opinion was," Whitney said, grinning a bit at the recollection. "I was frustrated with the injury, I was used to having more ice time and used to getting better results.
"It was a good talk. I needed it. From there, he's given me the opportunity to play a little more and I've given him a reason to."

Two nights later against Calgary, Whitney notched an assist. The next night against St. Louis, he finally found the net -- exploding for a hat trick and tying a career-high with five points.

Whitney has had eight more multiple-point games since them and has five points in his last three games -- playing a key role in Phoenix's four-game winning streak -- heading into Monday's matchup with Washington at Arena, a game that will be broadcast nationally on Versus (8 p.m. ET).
"I remember the meeting and it came at a good time because his hand was finally starting to feel better," Tippett said. "He's a competitor and he gets (upset) if he's not meeting his expectations of if those around him aren't. That's exactly why we wanted to bring him here -- a guy who is used to winning and doesn't tolerate less. Once he got back and found his own rhythm, got the rhythm of the team and got settled on that line he's been a very good player for us."

In early January, Whitney has now passed the 900-point mark -- not bad for a guy who signed his first NHL contract on the hood of his own car and felt like he might be headed for Europe after his first two stops at San Jose and Edmonton.

"I've been bought out twice and been put on waivers twice," said Whitney, who has faced questions about his 5-foot-8 build throughout his career. "The first 10 years in the League, it was a fight to prove you belonged and show people that little guys are valuable."

Even with the very slow start, Whitney's 32 assists and 42 points top all Phoenix forwards and his slick moves have helped lift the Phoenix power play from the League basement into the Top 20.

"He makes plays that are high-skill plays -- passes through people, passes when defenders aren't looking," Tippett said. "A lot of players wish they can make those kinds of players, but there are only a few that can. He's one of those guys that can."

Rules changes designed to open up the game not only increased the value of players like Whitney -- at 35, he collected a career-high 83 points in helping Carolina to the 2005-06 Stanley Cup and followed it up with 61- and 77-point seasons -- but it has allowed him to remain productive as he faced the reality of turning 39.

"The (rule) changes were a big factor not only for me but for a lot of guys my size," Whitney said. "You look at the draft now and all of a sudden, not everyone has to be 6-foot tall. Look at a guy like (former Carolina teammate) Jeff Skinner. He's a little guy and probably 10 years ago, regardless of his skill, he wouldn't have been a top-10 player. I wouldn't still be here if it wasn't for the changes. I never would have lasted. Now, you can play 20 years if you stay healthy."

Whitney has been very durable, playing 80 or more games in three of the past four seasons.

But he might have been better advised to sit out in October when he had surgery to repair the middle finger on his left hand. He missed only two games, but was unable to properly handle or shoot the puck for weeks.

"There was probably seven games I shouldn't have played, and it put me back," he said. "After the surgery I couldn't get it right. About a month later, I went it for an injection to relieve the tendinitis and it was the worst injection from a pain standpoint I've ever had. But it worked, and from there it was better."

Now with 911 points in his career, Whitney makes no secret about setting the goal of reaching 1,000 before calling it a career. He is under contract through next year, but might need to play longer to reach the plateau. And even though each year gets harder, he knows he will miss it when it's finished.

"It humbles you quickly watching your parents get up and go to work every day," Whitney said. "My mom worked for 35 years at her job and my day worked for 30 -- so you realize what we do is pretty good. Even on bad days when you're traveling, it's on a private plane.

"We'll see if I can hang on long enough for (1,000 points).  I'd have to get pretty hot in the next year and a half to get that, but I might still play beyond that for the opportunity to reach a pretty good milestone."
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